Text Messages Zero In On Human Trafficking

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.

Polaris started its text hotline in March, through a philanthropic partnership with San Francisco-based cloud company Twilio. Victims can text “HELP” or “INFO” to the number 233733 (BeFree), where they are forwarded to Polaris’s 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, chief executive Brad 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. “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.

Despite the challenges, the texting campaign has generated large volumes of new data Polaris is trying to analyze. Analyzing incidents in aggregate could help Polaris identify patterns in human trafficking. 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.”

Learn more at Mohana Ravindranath’s The Washington Post article: How text messages help the Polaris Project zero in on human trafficking.

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