This might be the best thing anyone can do with data

Sometimes, when I find myself reading about new ways to serve better ads or recommendations, or to analyze who likes what on Twitter, and I find myself asking who the hell cares. That’s because, sometimes, it all seems beyond trivial. When I imagine myself in the shoes of a modern-day slave being forced to work grueling hours under grueling conditions in a developing country, or a child whose parents are pimping her out to pedophiles, I can’t seem to figure out why it matters that my Starbucks coupon is delivered at the ideal time when I’m approaching the store.

So when I wrote on Monday about the work of the SumAll Foundation to bring the world of business and next-generation data analytics to non-profits, I was genuinely excited about what they were doing. The foundation’s first effort was around quantifying human trafficking and raising awareness of the problem. One of its next projects has to do with analyzing the online behavior of pedophiles. And the SumAll Foundation isn’t just gathering data and making infographics, but rather sharing deeper data with the relevant organizations and teaching them how to do some of this work themselves.

I was even happier on Tuesday when I began going through my Google Reader feeds to read about two other efforts dedicated to using data fighting human trafficking and sexual exploitation. One is from Microsoft researcher and Ivy League academician danah boyd. The other is from Google.

Tech can help when it understands human nature

Boyd’s work isn’t so much a project as it is a framework for helping the growing number of technologists she sees working with non-profit organizations and government institutions to fight the exploitation of children. On her blog, boyd notes that technology certainly can help combat human trafficking, but that there are very human and complex factors that need to be considered before just building a system like, presumably, one would for serving targeted ads.

“On too many occasions, I’ve watched well-intentioned technologists approach the space with a naiveté that comes from only knowing about human trafficking through media portrayals. While the portraits that receive widespread attention are important for motivating people to act, understanding the nuance and pitfalls of the space are critical for building interventions that will actually make a difference.”

You can read the full four-page primer on her site, but here are the 10 points she addresses. She learned these lessons in part from discussions with leading scholars — some of whom Microsoft funded — researching the role that technology plays in facilitating human trafficking:

  1. Youth often do not self-identify themselves as victims.
  2. “Survival sex” is one aspect of CSEC.
  3. Previous sexual abuse, homelessness, family violence, and foster care may influence youth’s risk of exploitation.
  4. Arresting victims undermines efforts to combat CSEC.
  5. Technologies should help disrupt criminal networks.
  6. Post-identification support should be in place before identification interventions are implemented.
  7. Evaluation, assessment, and accountability are critical for any intervention.
  8. Efforts need to be evidence-based.
  9. The cleanliness of data matters.
  10. Civil liberties are important considerations.

A global network, backed by some data heavyweights

Then there’s Google, which awarded $3 million to three anti-trafficking organizations based in the United States, Asia and Europe in order to establish a Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. The goal of the network, Google’s blog post explains, is to “collect data from local hotline efforts, share promising practices and create anti-trafficking strategies that build on common patterns and focus on eradication, prevention and victim protection.” This is critical: As the team at SumAll pointed out, one of the hardest things to do is facilitate effective data sharing across organizations so everyone has a clearer picture of what’s actually happening.

Here’s how Google explains the role of data sharing:

“Appropriate data can tell the anti-trafficking community which campaigns are most effective at reducing slavery, what sectors are undergoing global spikes in slavery, or if the reduction of slavery in one country coincides with an increase right across the border.”

This isn’t Google’s first foray into funding anti-trafficking efforts. In 2011, the company donated $11.5 million to the cause. This time, though it’s joined by the intelligence sector’s favorite data-analysis startup, Palantir, as well as, which is helping to scale the call-tracking infrastructure.

And of course I understand that advertising and other commercial efforts are a necessary part of the economy, but watching data-analysis technology do little else but line the pockets of already rich individuals and corporations does get a bit old. However, when the money these efforts generate and the technologies they inspire help fund and fight some of the most egregious abuses on the planet — abuses that affect individuals from demographics no advertiser really cares about, and abuses that sometimes help corporations drive larger profits — the whole discussion around the importance of data starts to seem a lot more meaningful.

Here’s Google’s three-minute video explaining the problem and how it thinks its hotline network can help:


Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Karuka.