Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

Community News Network

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
Community News Network
  • 072214 Diamond Llama 1.jpg Llama on the loose corralled in Missouri town

    A llama on the lam cruised Main Street Tuesday before it mistook a resident’s fenced backyard for a place to grab a meal and freshen up.

    July 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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 21, 2014

  • 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 21, 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 21, 2014

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • A quarter of the world's most educated people live in the 100 largest cities

    College graduates are increasingly sorting themselves into high-cost, high-amenity cities such as Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a phenomenon that threatens to segregate us across the country by education.

    July 18, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 17, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: New story emerges about Texas children locked in hot car

    After footage showed Texas shoppers breaking the windows of a hot car to rescue children trapped inside, additional witnesses have come forward to correct the story behind what has become a viral video.

    July 16, 2014

Obituaries
Featured Ads
Poll

The Iowegian wants readers to think about the 2014 Appanoose County Fair. It starts Monday and wraps up on Saturday with a demolition derby at 8 p.m. So, the question of the week is, "How many days do you plan to go to the Appanoose County Fair?

A. I plan to attend all six days.
B. I plan to attend five days.
C. I plan to attend four days.
D. I plan to attend three days.
E. I plan to attend two days.
F. I plan to attend one day.
G. I do not plan to go to the fair this year.
     View Results
Iowegian on Facebook