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Press Releases | NeedCom

Launch Release | Holiday Release

November 15, 1999


David Morgan, Web Lab

877-607-5757 or 514-915-1222


Innovative Web-based "Survey" on PBS Online
URL: http://www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom

New York - The holidays are almost upon us. It's the season for giving. Direct mail, telethons and bell-ringing Santas appeal for contributions to the needy. But what about that guy on the street corner asking for a handout? NeedCom (www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom) is the perfect Web experience for this charity-saturated season. While creator Cathy Davies ironically calls it "market research for panhandlers," a Boston Globe editorial has described it as innovative, and one reviewer called it "unique and brilliant."

NeedCom, a Web Lab project in association with PBS ONLINE, provides visitors with a provocative, complex and engaging experience that leads them to explore the personal strategies they unconsciously employ in dealing with panhandlers.

NeedCom asks visitors to rate the effectiveness of different panhandling strategies by opening their virtual wallets and giving six individual panhandlers spare change up to $1.00 each. Real-time statistics show visitors how their responses compare with the "generosity" of other participants.

The site also offers an instant statistical glimpse into participants' thoughts about panhandlers using mini-surveys called "Quick Polls." Visitors can click on one of two answers to a question and immediately see how others responded. And the "Customer Focus Groups" pose more than a dozen questions, such as "Is panhandling like your job?" and "Door opening: like it or not?"

In the "Panhandler Focus Groups" area of the site, visitors can read what real panhandlers think about their jobs and their customers. A New York-based panhandler named Prim says she makes $20 to $25 a day. "There's been days when I came to the bank with heels on, my hair curled, dressed! And I asked for money, and I made it, and some people would say, 'you dress better than me!"

Comments by visitors to the site reveal an incredible range of responses to panhandling. As one visitor noted, "I had to give something to the panhandler in D.C. who said that he needed money so he could sign up with America Online." Another commented, "I don't feel sorry for these losers! How do I know these stories are true? When I see someone on a corner, I don't give any money."

NeedCom cleverly points out that regardless of which side of the pan's handle you find yourself on, you can't ignore that it exists. By taking visitors on a surprise tour into the real-life world of the homeless, poor and forgotten, it answers questions for participants that they may never have asked. Why do you panhandle? How do you survive? Why don't you work? How much do you make?

NeedCom doesn't trivialize panhandling and it isn't afraid to step on toes. It doesn't shy away from the ugly realities of alcohol abuse and other issues lurking behind panhandling. While some have found it offensive or demeaning, others see compassion and concern. And there is no doubt that it provides a unique insight on the panhandler's perspective.

NeedCom is the creative and "bizarre brainchild" of Los Angeles artist Cathy Davies. The 25-year-old artist was hit with inspiration while watching a shy woman panhandle through a subway car in New York City. "She was going from person to person, whispering her request," said Davies. "I was suddenly curious how she could have come up with that approach, what was her motivation. And then I had an epiphany -- that I wanted to explore the motivations of panhandlers... and the concept for NeedCom evolved from there."

"I was frustrated with the way that the homeless had been represented in the '80s and wanted to take on the issue with the new media of the '90s -- the Web -- and make an artistic statement that would be more relevant for today," Davies adds. Davies' previous interactive work, "Compression, a Multimedia Patheticomedy," was a finalist in the l995 New Voices, New Visions Festival, a digital art competition sponsored by Interval Research Corporation and the Voyager Company. NeedCom appeared as a work in progress at the CoMA '97 Computer & Multimedia Arts Festival in San Francisco.

Web Lab (www.weblab.org), is a non-profit that develops and promotes innovative ways to use the Web as a transformative force in people's lives and in society, and catalyzes others to experiment with the medium's potential to serve the public interest. Web Lab was founded by Marc Weiss, the creator and former executive producer of P.O.V., PBS's award-winning showcase of independent, non-fiction films.

NeedCom received support through Round 2 of Web Lab's Web Development Fund (WDF), which, in association with PBS ONLINE, provides funding and support services for innovative sites proposed by independent producers.

PBS ONLINE (www.pbs.org), PBS's award-winning site on the World Wide Web, produces high-quality Web programming as it pioneers the convergence of television and the Internet. PBS ONLINE features more than 85,000 pages of content as well as companion Web sites for nearly 400 PBS programs and specials. PBS ONLINE has won the prestigious Webby Award for best TV site in l998 and l999.

Contact: David Morgan, Web Lab (rove@earthlink.net)
877-607-5757 or 541-915-1222

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