Google has committed $3 million to three human trafficking groups in a bid to build an international helpline network fuelled by data.
Google announced the launch of the Google Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network at an event held by its Google Ideas think tank in Washington. The idea had already been floated last summer by the think tank, and it contributed $11.5 million to the cause in 2011. But this week it has cemented its commitment and brought together NGOs Polaris Project,Liberty Asia and La Strada International.
Between the three of them the groups have the US, Europe and Asia covered, but the task is a massive one. According to the post by Google human trafficking enslaves 21 million people, while stats gathered by the UN's Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking estimate that 2.5 million people are in forced labor at any given time—56 percent of whom are based in Asia. Most of those trafficked are aged between 18 and 24 and 43 percent are forced into the sex trade. Of course, there can be no accurate stats on the industry, so the true figures are perhaps even more devastating. That's why Google wants to bring together groups across the globe, sharing essential data among them all to more effectively target the problem. For instance, every time a call is logged, its location and all the factual data provided by the caller can be logged and analysed as part of a wider web of information, which in turn would reveal emerging patterns of where people are being trafficked or where they're working.
"Looking at the existing data, we found that the number of reports in the US of sex workers calling a hotline because they're being controlled by a pimp is double on Wednesday than on any other day of the week," Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, told the Atlantic when discussing what data applications can reveal. Groups that are already monitoring the industry and have existing relationships with law enforcement can then hopefully react faster to local or regular bursts in activity.
Palantir Technologies, which was born out of intelligence agencies' expertise and has helped tackle fraud in the US, is donating its analytics platform and data integration software to the project, while Salesforce.com is helping scale Polaris' call tracking capabilities. US-based Polaris, which has already been making use of the tech, has collated data from 72,000 calls to date. Considering 56 percent of victims are located in Asia and the Pacific region, the amount of untapped data there is huge. Getting people to trust anti-trafficking groups and overcome their fear to make contact is another matter altogether. But if the NGOs can group together to make some kind of actionable difference, perhaps that trust will follow.
According to a report by Foreign Policy, which attended the event, head of philanthropy at Palantir Technologies Jason Payne flagged up one issue that could potentially limit the breadth of data analysis the project should be carrying out.
"Just because someone's human rights have been eviscerated, doesn't mean that their civil liberties and electronic rights can be eviscerated," he said, talking about treating victims' data with the same respect as anyone else's. "When we talk about building an international collaboration of data, it's very important to think about the responsibility we have to make sure that only people who need to know have access to that information. Especially when we start to talk about personal identifiable information, phone numbers, names, and even more so, health information—HIV status, etc."
With the proper controls in place, however, the initiative could help shine a spotlight on a global industry that is worth the same as the UK fashion industry (reportedly around £21 billion annually) but operates in the shadows, remaining invisible to border controls and law enforcement.
This article originally appeared in Wired UK.