Case Study: Polaris Puts Data Analysis in the Service of Defeating Human Trafficking

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data analysis

Human trafficking is believed to be the third-largest criminal activity in the world, according to the FBI. The Department of Homeland Security advises that industries around the world including agriculture, hospitality, restaurant, and domestic work, as well as prostitution, often take advantage of modern slavery. Those pulled into this underworld are often held in isolation or confinement, or subject to threats – such as being reported to immigration authorities if they are illegally in a country – if they try to escape these situations.

The non-profit Polaris , based in Washington D.C., is dedicated to eradicating the multi-billion-dollar human trafficking industry, which it says affects more than 25 million people around the world. It began operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline for the federal government in 2007 on a 24/7 basis, offering crisis response and support for all human trafficking situations throughout the United States and its territories.

Its respondents do everything from helping stabilize the lives of individuals who need options for shelter or counseling after getting out of a forced labor environment to alerting law enforcement of tips they receive about human trafficking scenarios.

The hotline clearly is an invaluable aid for helping individuals who have been forced to work against their will. But it has a secondary purpose, too, says Sara Crowe, Director of Data Analysis at Polaris’ Data Analytics program. “We also recognize how much information is provided to us through the hotline,” she says, noting that Polaris hears of at least 25 human trafficking cases in the U.S. every day. “It’s pretty unprecedented when it comes to the issue of human trafficking, where there’s traditionally not a lot of information available.”

While the organization’s first priority always will be to help people in these dreadful circumstances, it also knows that much good can come of leveraging any information its hotline collects to build a better understanding of human trafficking issues and to share that data with law enforcement, government, social services and other stakeholders worldwide to enable more effective intervention – without, of course, jeopardizing individuals’ privacy.

Data includes information about the individuals (their backgrounds and experiences, including how they were controlled), businesses, and locations involved in human trafficking episodes. To ensure the data will be useful to field workers and other allies in the fight against modern slavery, Crowe leads the effort to ensure the Data Quality and utility of Polaris’ massive human trafficking-specific datasets by creating, deploying, and managing a standardized data scheme and basic UI for Data Management.

A Big Helping Hand

Paxata, which provides the Adaptive Information Platform that automatically transforms raw data into ready information, offered its technology and support for free to Polaris. “It’s committed to the fight,” Crowe says.

Its solution and services are a critical help to Polaris in formatting its data, which Crowe says, “sometimes is a bit dirty.” Often the data is not entered correctly the first time, “and before we can analyze it the information needs to be consistent and cleaned-up,” she says.

Paxata also aids Polaris in working through new ways to transform data and in helping fill missing gaps. With some ten years’ worth of information for some 35,000 cases, Polaris believes that it has the most competitive data set on the human trafficking issue in the U.S. But often it has to supplement the information it receives from its callers with data from other sources.

That’s no surprise, considering the circumstances under which many people reach out. They may not have their own phones, for example, or they may be afraid to say too much or have only limited information to offer as a tip.

Additionally, adding to its data variety struggles, Polaris has a partnership agreement with Mexico’s human trafficking hotline; there are often connections between U.S. and Mexican cases. That data is in Spanish and has to be translated, and Paxata helped by establishing an automated process for that for Polaris.

“There’s a lot of data wrangling needed to get all those sources into a consistent format to really do data analysis without having discrepancies,” Crowe says. “Paxata enables us to merge data sets and essentially transform data – it’s really essential in that process.”

Paxata’s solution is based on a functionally and technically unified platform for data integration, quality, enrichment, governance, and collaboration and on an intuitive, no-code, self-service model that supports rich visualizations and interactive experiences to create and consume information. Its approach for instantly transforming raw data matters to a non-profit like Polaris, where in-house technical resources can be limited. Previous to using Paxata, data transformation was a manual process mostly managed by one developer.

“With Paxata it’s a lot of point and click,” says Crowe. “Once we set up a process that transforms data in a particular way we can just have it – it’s automated for the next time and we never have to go through the process again. That’s incredible for us.”

Analyzing Human Trafficking  

The use of Paxata’s technology and services have enabled Polaris to support the concept of a human trafficking typology. It is capable of performing Data Analytics with its data at a macro level to figure out patterns: For a long time, human traffic was categorized as a one-size-fits-all situation, so responses to it were not nuanced, she says.

Data analysis, however, makes it clear that “there is tremendous variety in experiences and how networks operate,” Crowe says. That was critical to its being able to publish a report noting 25 types of human trafficking that it identified in the U.S, including ones it had not previously been aware of, and related issues. That has led to more industries and entities approaching Polaris with additional data they believe could help its efforts.

More data “lets us dig in,” she says. Previous to its having the capabilities enabled by Paxata, the arrival of new data sets would create a little panic at Polaris regarding the need to manually review and combine them with existing data. “But now it’s much easier because of Paxata,” says Crowe. For example, attention being brought to how money laundering figures into human trafficking brings more financial institutions coming to work with Polaris on the issue. Their data sets and processes are pretty sophisticated, and without the capacity that Paxata brings to data prepping, formatting, and wrangling, “it would have been a real struggle to take that work on,” she says.

So much time would be spent on data preparation that not much would be left to pursue more complex and sophisticated methods of data analysis, she says. Now, instead of spending money from constrained budgets and using hours of limited personnel time to get data together to the point where it’s ready to be analyzed, “we can skip over into the analysis work. We are being increasingly impactful with the resources we do have – we are much more efficient and streamlined,” says Crowe.

Just take a look at Polaris’ website for an example of what being data savvy enables. You’ll find visualized statistics on the topic of human trafficking. In the past, it could take three to four hours once a quarter to add new material in this vein; now it takes 15 minutes. “That’s two plus hours of one of my staff member’s time that can be spent on something else,” Crowe says.

Paxata is contributing to the war against human trafficking in another way, too: It’s designed a training curriculum for users learning its platform based on human trafficking Big Data rather than simplistic case examples.

“Now, every time someone goes through training, that person gains a much better understanding of human trafficking and more awareness that it’s happening,” says Crowe. “I’ve never seen a company really take that approach before. It’s a super-creative way to address the issue while also doing training.”

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the links below have more information:
Office of the Administration for Children & Families

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