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Google helps analyse human trafficking

10 April 2013, 08:02

Washington - Sex workers are more likely to call in to a hotline for victims of human trafficking on a Wednesday, and a Google-backed initiative announced on Tuesday could help to explain why.

The internet search giant is giving a total of $3m to three groups in Europe, Asia and the US combating modern-day slavery to help them share and analyse the mountain of data that grows out of their frontline work.

"There are a lot of different hotlines that exist around the world, but they're completely disconnected," said Jared Cohen, the head of Google's in-house think tank Google Ideas.

"The data is not integrated across all of them," he said. "If you call one hotline, it doesn't necessarily feed into an integrated system that meshes with all the others."

Sharing the Google funding will be La Strada International, based in Amsterdam but focused on central and eastern Europe; Hong Kong-based Liberty Asia; and the Polaris Project that covers the US.

Bureaucratic lines

The initiative was unveiled at Google's offices in Washington, where a few hours earlier the White House published what it called a Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking.

Open for public comment until 24 May, the 61-page document comes three years after the Department of Homeland Security launched a so-called "Blue Campaign" to cut across bureaucratic lines in a bid to address human trafficking.

In a statement online, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that in 2012 alone, the US authorities "investigated a historic amount of cases and rescued more victims of human trafficking".

They also, she said, "provided support to over 1 200 human trafficking victims... Working together, we can take comprehensive action to stop this terrible crime, rescue victims, and put perpetrators behind bars."

Worldwide, human trafficking is responsible for enslaving nearly 21 million people, from sex workers to manual labourers to street beggars, in an illicit trade that generates an estimated $32bn a year, Cohen said.

"Bringing all the data together illuminates certain patterns and questions that one might not otherwise see without looking at holistically," Cohen said.

"There are, in the United States, nearly double the number of reports from women who are controlled by their pimps on a Wednesday than any other day in the week," he said by way of example.

"We don't know why that's the case - but because of the integration of this data, we are able to see this as a question."

Choke points

Google has previously committed $11.5m to anti-trafficking efforts - and Cohen said "any ads [that appear on Google's search result pages] known to fuel human trafficking absolutely gets taken down, period".

Hotlines have also started to notice how calls from trafficked individuals forced into the selling of door-to-door sales scams are more frequent in northern states in the summer, and the south in the winter, he added.

More access to more data from more sources can help campaigners and law enforcement allies to identify choke points where human trafficking can best be disrupted.

Polaris alone has collected data from more than 72 000 calls to its hotline, while Suzanne Hoff of La Strada International said her organisation last year took 13 000 calls over its eight hotlines.

"By sharing data, you can see a picture at the global level; it gives you more information on your own situation," Hoff said.



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