The Stars Also Shine for You: Modern Technologies for Victim Outreach

Modern love stories in the world of today start with a text message. The first contact is not through mutual friends, but through mutual followers. But this is not about love as you may be thinking. The power that is given to us humans by technologies is unlimited, but also very objective-driven. This in turn makes it hard to associate technology to social justice issues, thus becoming a blind spot for organizations or authorities that work in these kinds of issues. Here’s where technologies such as Freedom Signal come in.

Freedom Signal is a platform born from the partnership between Seattle Against Slavery (SAS) and Real Rescue from Sex Trafficking (REST) that directly sheds a light to the blind spot. This platform offers genuine and efficient outreach means to organizations because its pillar is the collaboration of survivors of sex trafficking and software engineers 

It first crawls the internet, groups the huge amount of data collected, and puts it at the disposal of advocates, who can then filter further the profiled potential victims to procure a more one-on-one level of interaction. This approach is proactive, in comparison to traditional ones, such as street outreach or printed information, and has had significantly higher results; adding in this way value to the whole endeavor of organizations dedicated to end the sex trafficking market.

Just like for the rest of the world, the online sex trafficking market was unbalanced by COVID-19 and all the shifts that it imposed in our way of lives. People were forced to stay at home, making our daily tasks to be taken to the digital world. This migration of environments was also reflected on the online market in its own way, and technologies such as Freedom Signal have become fundamental for its partner organizations to keep the light on.

From undying efforts of starting a communication, to diversity of services that can be offered, Freedom Signal has proven, today more than ever to be ahead of its time by providing means for advocates of different organizations to reach out to potential victims, and letting them know that they deserve a good, decent, love-filling life instead of the one that they think they deserve. 

Getting the Data

The two main sources of data of Freedom signal are the web crawlers and experience. The first one is developed by software engineers, whereas the second one comes from the survivors that collaborate in the development process of the platform. 

A Web Crawler is an automated system that follows the “breadcrumbs”, giveaway details, of an advertisement to determine whether the content falls into the category of a sex sale ad. Specifically for Freedom Signal, they are powered by AWS (Amazon Web Services) in a serverless architecture, one per web page that’s being monitored. The pivot details of these types of ads are age, location, phone number; or sometimes the whole page is a giveaway. 

All the information gathered from the ads by the web crawlers are stored in the database of Freedom Signal, where a spam filtering process begins before it gets to the advocates. Spam filtering of the recollected data is a particular troublesome step since it’s highly frequent. In an interview with Liz Rush, Director of Technology in SAS, she explained how sometimes the data is a decoy meant to engage the user in a blackmail through personification, or otherwise, which further complicates the filtering process. Most of the unfiltered spam falls into the hands of advocates who help refine the algorithms for this step of the process. 

Reaching Out

Freedom Signal is a highly proactive approach, differentiating it from other traditional ones that ultimately have the same goal: engage the person. When an advocate comes in full access to the information of potential victims, she or he can make the experience and communication fully personalized by strategically reaching out to potential victims in a way that resonates with them. 

The platform is divided in three main modules: the inbox, the form, and the conversations. The inbox contains all potential and on-going conversations an advocate currently holds with victims, the second refers to the whole procedure of reaching out potential victims with applied filters and conditions on the data available, and the third one is where the advocate types the proactive, direct message that will be massively send to all potential victims that match the searched specifications.

An advocate has two important inboxes: the Unassigned inbox, which contains all the conversations not yet started, and the Assigned inbox, which contains the conversations that have been responded after reaching out. Sometimes the potential victim declines the help being offered, other times they refer to somebody else that they know of that might want this help. 

On a summit panel presentation during the National Center on Sexual Exploitation of the Coalition To End Sexual Exploitation, which has held last year virtually, Pete Dunlap, Software Engineer in SAS, along with Liz Rush, said that even when a potential victim at first deferred or rejected the advocate’s help, they are contacted regularly or at the end of the month to offer it again. 

The Search

Freedom Signal is a Big Data driven platform, capable of distributing the workload using features of AWS such as lambda functions for queue processing of messages, analysis of data gathered by web crawlers, and more. From all the ads that were followed by the web crawlers, a total of 17,000 potential victims were found, from which 400 responses were received, that resulted in 40 persons getting into services.

The uniqueness of Freedom Signal, as said before, comes from the collaboration from both survivors and web engineers. When reaching out to potential victims, it has been proven that the more familiar that they feel towards the advocate, the better and most likely the answer will be.

An advocate first fills in a form to find potential victims that match their history. The necessary fields for a query are sex, age, location, and zip code. The data is clustered by time, location, and phone number because even if a person changes the name in each ad, this helps the algorithm map out the addresses to determine if more than one instance of a potential victim belongs to the same person. Because of this, the result to an advocate’s query in the Freedom Signal database can show a ‘last activity’, meaning if the person stopped posting ads for a while and later returns, the platform is able to determine this. 

During an interview with Liz Rus, we performed a demo query with random values given to the fields, that resulted in 834 potential victims. If a random query could generate such a significant result, how is Freedom Signal able to engage them all?

The Conversation

The insights that the proactive approach of Freedom Signal has given on the modern sex trafficking trade are significant, shocking, and extremely important to replicate and amplified their reach. Being held in digital form, the potential victims found themselves feeling protected and sheltered because somehow sending words makes it easier for them to open up and engage in a conversation, than it would be otherwise in person. 

Text messaging gives the potential victim a powerful choice: when to respond. Regardless of whether the potential victim decides to accept the advocate’s help or not, the pressure of giving an immediate answer and being confronted on the spot about your situation is not always reacted to in the same way. By giving them the time to prepare and weigh the meaning of the text, potential victims can give clearer and more honest responses to the advocate reaching out. REST, one of SAS major partners to both the organization and Freedom Signal, reported that in comparison the rate of responses with online outreach was of 433% greater than in person outreach. 

Conversation is key when trying to get a victim out of the trade and into services. The analysis made on the data has shown that sometimes a person is not even aware that they’re being trafficked, and then a message offering help to change their lives reached them. Like cold water, they’re faced with the reality of their situation, which is possible because of the proactive approach that the advocates can have with them thanks to Freedom Signal. 


The Help

But what is the help that is needed? Once an advocate has engaged a person into a conversation, they can offer a variety of services according to what each particular needs. Sometimes a person more than just talking and being contacted with the correct people for help, also needs to combat drugs and substances dependencies, housing, or help finding a job. 

Freedom Signal is the means through which many lives have been changed for the better, and the receptionists of all the work done are not far from sight. According to Liz, one of the most fulfilling things of working on Freedom Signal has been that she’s able to see who receives your work. Even without a previous software background, being a centered and well-grounded person, Liz has found the joy in it that keeps her driven and motivated to keep on going. 

One of the fundamentals of SAS’s mission, and one close to heart for Liz as well, is that it doesn’t matter your age, or the amount of skill that you’ve gathered, the right moment to start helping is right now. What has to be learned can be learned but what needs to be done can only be done if we all start believing in the power of collaboration. 

Freedom Signal offers help to a wide range of people, regardless of age, ethnicity, social background, or the reasons behind them being caught in this situation. The dire need of a person who profoundly believes that this way of life is the only way out of need, or the one that they deserve, can’t remain unseen in the digital world, and more so because of the current global situation.

Then COVID came

One day, almost a year ago, we were told to guard ourselves at home. To not come out unless it was extremely necessary and with all the proper security measurements. But how do you define a need? When somebody you love looks you into the eyes and silently asks you how you are going to survive this, what do you do if not all that you can. For victims that were already engaged in the trade and people who got engaged prior to COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the answer was simple: the trade must go on. 

COVID kept us apart for months, and the big premise of the pandemic is that we should remain as isolated as possible and lessen the human touch and interaction. The intimate act that involves sex trafficking is clearly of the type that should be avoided, and yet victims were exposed and unprotected by both the sex worker that traded them and their need to survive the economic crisis.  At the beginning of the pandemic the ad activity that the web crawlers detected was not noticeably changed. The spike in the activity came later, and now it’s clear that not even the pandemic has been able to put a stop to it. The term “survival sex” comes into  play, generating an increase in the number of people that enter the trade as a mean to survive the on-going economic crisis and increase in the unemployment rate that the lockdown has caused.

How can it be held against somebody how they chose to cope with this crisis and at the same time how can you find a way of reaching out when the order is clear: stay at home, avoid human touch? Freedom Signal proves to be ahead of its time and becomes a beacon of light to advocates, organizations, and victims that helps navigate this new scenario. Online outreach is now the main hotline for victims to ask for help and for advocates to keep on propagating their mission: change is possible, the life that you carry is by no means the one that you deserve nor is it the only way to survive.

Hopefully the pandemic can give in return a complete shift in the way that other reactive approaches are designed, and prone them to adopt a similar proactive one as that of Freedom Signal. The extraordinary labor, findings, and analysis that Freedom Signal has given to partner organizations is not short from significant, but it has also forced us to acknowledge that a gap remains where further development is needed, not just in technology, but in the core of the institutions that can extend the reach of this new way of helping. 

If we are to remember some lessons from the current situation they are that: humans work better when collaborating; an individual’s decision can completely shatter the lives of many; help can be given in different ways.