Niagara Gazette

Web Extra

December 9, 2013

Human trafficking battled by text message

WASHINGTON — A few months ago, a worker monitoring a hotline for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to combating human trafficking, received a text message from an 18-year-old woman in distress.

The woman, a sex-trade worker, was trapped in a motel room with her pimp and she secretly used his cellphone to send a text seeking help. The Washington-based group moved quickly to alert authorities, who ultimately arrested the pimp.

For Polaris' chief executive Brad Myles, the episode demonstrated how text messaging might offer a new channel to help victims. In the process, Polaris learned those texts are data, and collectively they can be analyzed to identify patterns in human trafficking so the group might better craft policy and awareness programs.

Polaris started its text hotline in March, through a philanthropic partnership with San Francisco-based cloud company Twilio, which powers text and voice customer service communications for clients such as Uber, Hulu, eHarmony and CocaCola. Victims can text "HELP" or "INFO" to the number 233733 (BeFree), where they are forwarded to Polaris' hotline staff, who then respond from their computers through a messaging service called Chatter. Polaris has operated a voice hotline, at 1-888-373-7888, for a few years.

The text campaign lets a new group of victims connect with Polaris, Myles said. "There's a population of people who are high-risk individuals, or survivors of trafficking, who would not call the phone number, and they wouldn't send us an e-mail, and they wouldn't fill out a Web form, but for whatever reason they would send us a text. Once we get in touch with them, it's the same types of information we would probably learn from a call."

Training hotline specialists to use texts to help victims in crisis has been a challenge, because of the kinds of information they contain, Myles said.

"The actual length and structure of the language you're using is very different - you're not speaking in full, complete sentences, you're not able to explain context. It's a very truncated, reductionist form of communication," he said.

For instance, specialists have learned to interpret texting shorthand. If they ask if a victim is safe, the victim may respond "Y" or "N" instead of "yes" or "no."

"We began to need to ask more directed, close-ended questions instead of open-ended questions," Myles said, asking if someone is safe, for instance, instead of asking them to describe their situation.

Hotline specialists also had to adjust to what Myles describes as "a strobe-light feeling of communication" - texts are often sent sporadically, so the conversation may take longer than a phone call. With texts, "it's not a continuous stream of discussion," as specialists might have to wait minutes or even hours for a response, Myles said.

Despite the challenges, the texting campaign has generated large volumes of new data Polaris is trying to analyze. Salesforce, the company behind Chatter, collects data about the phone calls and texts, such as length, frequency and location. Combined with tips from callers - suspicious addresses, vehicles, or names of traffickers, for instance - Polaris has information on almost 200 variables per case.

Analyzing incidents in aggregate could help Polaris identify patterns in human trafficking. For instance, Polaris recently started receiving seemingly unrelated calls and texts throughout the country about illegal labor trafficking and abusive work conditions in carnivals. "It was something that wasn't really on our radar as much before," Myles said.

After searching its database, Polaris' staff identified common recruitment sites and recruiters worldwide who were drawing immigrants into the United States to work at these carnivals. Polaris is developing interventions targeting workers and recruiters in Central America and Africa, where the workers often come from.

In the future, this data could be used to predict where incidents will occur before they do. Polaris has met with computing firms to discuss "becoming proactive and not being so reactive," Myles said. "We could use [modeling] then to craft certain interventions that we know will target certain types of trafficking, without needing to learn about them from the calls."

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Web Extra
  • Vader Darth Vader is polling higher than all potential 2016 presidential candidates

    On the other hand, with a net favorability of -8, Jar Jar is considerably more popular than the U.S. Congress, which currently enjoys a net favorability rating of -65.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 2.00.42 PM.png VIDEO: Train collides with semi truck carrying lighter fluid

    A truck driver from Washington is fortunate to be alive after driving his semi onto a set of tracks near Somerset, Ky., and being struck by a locomotive, which ignited his load of charcoal lighter fluid.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • An oncologist uses scorpion venom to locate cancer cells

    Olson, a pediatric oncologist and research scientist in Seattle, has developed a compound he calls Tumor Paint. When injected into a cancer patient, it seems to light up all the malignant cells so surgeons can easily locate and excise them.

    July 22, 2014

  • mama.jpg What we get wrong about millennials living at home

    If the media is to be believed, America is facing a major crisis. "Kids," some age 25, 26, or even 30 years old, are living out of their childhood bedrooms and basements at alarmingly high numbers. The hand-wringing overlooks one problem: It's all overblown.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Expectations too high for a rehabbing Woods

    Tiger Woods finished near bottom last weekend at Royal Liverpool, drawing out his drought of major tournament wins. Despite the disappointing showing, Woods' return to form remains a matter of when, not if.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 110720 Walmart.jpg Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 22, 2014

  • Sparring justices find little disagreement at the opera

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed a different view of U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday when she described about her passion for opera, one she shares with Justice Antonin Scalia.

    July 22, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 22, 2014

  • NIA Biz Column art 1 072114 Electric cars will get charge out of new IBEW 237 battery station

    Those who drive electric cars now have a free location to stop and charge their batteries, thanks to a new charging station recently built at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 237 at 8803 Niagara Falls Blvd. Beside offering free charging, the stations gave a class of apprentice electricians a chance to learn how to assemble the stations. "We think it's a great training tool," said Russ Quarantello, a business manager for the union.

    July 21, 2014 4 Photos

Featured Ads
House Ads
AP Video
Ariz. Inmate Dies 2 Hours After Execution Began Crash Kills Teen Pilot Seeking World Record LeBron James Sends Apology Treat to Neighbors Raw: Funeral for Man Who Died in NYPD Custody Migrants Back in Honduras After US Deports Israeli American Reservist Torn Over Return Raw: ISS Cargo Ship Launches in Kazakhstan Six Indicted in StubHub Hacking Scheme Former NTSB Official: FAA Ban 'prudent' EPA Gets Hip With Kardashian Tweet Bodies of MH17 Victims Arrive in the Netherlands Biden Decries Voting Restrictions in NAACP Talk Broncos Owner Steps Down Due to Alzheimer's US, UN Push Shuttle Diplomacy in Mideast Trump: DC Hotel Will Be Among World's Best Plane Crashes in Taiwan, Dozens Feared Dead Republicans Hold a Hearing on IRS Lost Emails Raw: Mourners Gather As MH17 Bodies Transported Robot Parking Valet Creates Stress-free Travel Raw: Fight Breaks Out in Ukraine Parliament
Opinion
House Ads
Night & Day
Twitter News
Follow us on twitter
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Front page