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The Polaris Project: using data to fight human trafficking

Data analytics can help tackle some of the hardest problems facing society today, not just enhance the competitiveness of businesses.

Photo of Wei Wei Liu
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The Polaris Project is one of the largest organizations in the US that works to fight human trafficking. It is estimated that there are 4.5M people who are trapped in this modern form of slavery. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, which is operated by Polaris, received 3,598 reports of sex trafficking in the US last year (Polaris Project). Starting in 2012, the NGO has partnered with Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company, to dramatically change the way it responds to human trafficking cases through the use of data. Palantir’s philanthropy arm provides engineering and software resources to the Polaris Project to gather all the data collected from hotline calls, and creates a robust and streamlined database for Polaris employees to use.

This partnership has created value in two separate ways. First, it has improved the hotline’s quality and immediacy of responses by aggregating data. Palantir has improved the formatting and availability of different sets of data, and has created functionality that automatically pushes data to the user (e.g. response protocols, and local information about shelters, law enforcement agencies, and other nearby resources). Whereas formerly a call center specialist would have to triangulate multiple resources stored in unintegrated programs (e.g. Microsoft Word, Google Maps), now he or she can quickly access all this information through a single dashboard when responding to a crisis call. Because response time is critically important—often sex trafficking victims are heavily monitored and only have minutes to call before their pimp returns, for example—this creates a dramatic efficiency improvement that leads to faster response time and therefore a higher chance that the victim receives help. The second form of value creation harnesses data analytics to identify patterns in human trafficking. For example, aggregated data on human trafficking calls can be used to track where activity is concentrated and identify the nodes in different trafficking networks. This information can be used to ramp up preventive measures, for example through targeted outreach or campaigns in specific areas, and can also aid law enforcement in identifying when and where more policing resources are needed. This functionality becomes even more compelling when different anti-human trafficking organizations are able to securely share anonymized data with each other to create larger, global pools of information.

Because the partnership is a not-for-profit endeavor that prioritizes the creation of societal value over profit, value is captured by various stakeholders in the ecosystem, often in non-monetary or indirect ways. First, sex trafficking victims are able to claim value; they have a higher likelihood of escaping slavery because responders are better equipped to help. Law enforcement captures value in the form of lower expenditures, because its policing efforts are better targeted and have a higher likelihood of success. Palantir receives positive PR and marketing from its involvement and likely sees improved recruitment and retention, and therefore lower costs, from engineers who are motivated by their work with the Polaris Project. The Polaris Project can obtain additional support, financial or in-kind, from donors and foundations impressed by its data-driven approach and its ability to drive improved outcomes.

Creating value from a data-driven approach requires changes in the Polaris Project’s operating model. First, the culture must embrace technology and a disciplined approach to analytics, which may be challenging in an NGO that has historically relied on the human-to-human connections required to tackle a pervasive social problem. Hotline responders must integrate use of the database into their workflow, and other partners must be open to sharing their data. Most importantly, a data-driven approach requires considerable IT capabilities, both in terms of maintaining databases but also in terms of continually understanding and improving the analytics. Palantir’s involvement in this work is admirable, but does not appear to have been focused on creating a long-term capability within the Polaris Project so much as delivering Palantir resources that can provide assistance. The potential for big data to address social problems is exciting and game-changing. But to truly harness this power, the organizations who are working in this space must have the technological capabilities and the human capital to pursue and sustain data initiatives on their own, without relying on the philanthropy of for-profit technology firms.

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Photo of Laura

Wow. I love that the use of data is also helping to solve real social issues. It seems clear the value creation portion, but is not clear how they can capture value and hence how to become sustainable