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12 Feb 2018

How big data is tackling human trafficking

Sarah Brown

Founded in 2006, STT works to identify global trends in human trafficking, identify hotspots, help people report trafficking when they see it and raise awareness of its existence.

The most remarkable aspect of this mission is not just the international nature of trafficking, the huge numbers involved, or even the horrific conditions in which people suffer, but the fact that it so often happens under our noses.

Hidden in plain sight in nail bars, car washes, building sites and many other common workplaces, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are, sadly, all around us.

This presents a unique data challenge for the charity. A typical complaint made by businesses looking to become data-driven is the wealth of data available and the struggle to make sense of, and take insights from, that data. For Brown and the team, however, getting hold of the data in the first place is extremely difficult, given the nature of the business, as well as the fact that it is happening globally.

The charity collects information from any available source, with much of it coming from open source intelligence and data shared by partners.

The open source research requires a large amount of web and document scraping, text mining and linguistic processing.  A significant challenge is transforming information into a structured format so it can be processed and analysed.

Using data to spread awareness

A key aspect of STT’s work is social media campaigns. Once analytical techniques have been used to identify suspected human trafficking hotspots, the charity then creates geo-located Facebook posts that appear on the news feeds of users’ accounts in those specific locations.

There is a ‘Learn More’ button on the posts, which takes people to a more detailed narrative on the website. This provides more information on the situation in that particular location, links to details on how to spot the signs of modern slavery and lets people know how to report suspected human trafficking activity, or if something just doesn’t feel quite right.

By doing this, STT can create a platform for community engagement and mobilisation. Gathering intelligence from communities and the general public is crucial but is noted as being extremely difficult to collect.

By using social media, the charity can bridge that critical information gap – something that has proved very successful. Once it has collected this data, the team can then use data techniques to conduct quantitative analysis to measure the impact of the campaigns.

On average, its social media campaigns reach more 40% of the targeted population, and hit a click-through rate of at least 5%, compared to an average click-through rate of 0.9% for commercial marketing campaigns.

Above and beyond this, the charity conducts sentiment analysis, records shares and reactions, and pulls relevant data and intelligence from the comments. Any relevant intelligence is then shared with appropriate agencies and organisations. Statistical analysis is also extremely important for monitoring and evaluating the impact of these initiatives.

The right tools for the job

IBM has provided assistance to the cause, through an impact grant which provides cloud storage and i2 analysis tools. These tools from IBM enable the STT data team to easily identify networks and visualise their findings, while mapping software such as ArcGIS enables them to demonstrate hotspot analysis and active trafficking routes.

However, the focus of a lot of other existing data analysis tools is not towards discovering and extracting human trafficking data, and on the rare occasion they are, they tend to be focused on instances of sexual exploitation when labour exploitation is actually far more prevalent globally.

Similarly, many of the analytical resources are slightly misdirected. A lot of the software focusses on social networks and prosecution, whereas Brown and her team are more interested in prevention and identifying hotspots, trends and routes rather than looking at individuals’ connections and activities.

A collaborative approach

A big part of preventing human trafficking is cutting out points in the supply chain. STT developed a manual with the European Bankers Alliance six years ago which explains red flag indicators and how to recognise them.

Updated in May 2017, the manual contains transactional, behavioural and Know Your Client indicators, which help financial institutions to recognise suspicious activity that may be related to human trafficking.

Alongside the manual, the charity helps train frontline bank branch staff so they are more able to spot the tell-tale signs. It also runs awareness campaigns with Barclays and provides both specific and thematic data to multiple financial institutions.

It is these collaborative, multi-sector partnerships that Brown believes is key to disrupting global human trafficking. That means sharing information and coordinating initiatives and strategies, and avoiding working in silos, which she argues has never been a successful model.

Agencies and organisations are coming round to this idea, but there is more work to be done, and the momentum that has been gained, must be sustained.

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