Caravan Studios Generator to uncover opportunities for technology to disrupt sex trafficking.of minors.

Tech for a Free World

What can we do when we use technology to fight human trafficking?

When Caravan Studios entered the first Partnership for Freedom Innovation Challenge, we became immersed in the topic of modern slavery, here at home and around the world. Participating in the Challenge gave us the opportunity to meet professionals in the field, to collaborate, and to help us understand the particular problems we might illuminate and someday solve.

Through the Challenge process, we were fortunate to meet Polaris, a leader in the fight to eradicate global modern slavery. Together, we received an award from that first Challenge and the financial support allowed us to turn our joint concept of expanding emergency shelter for survivors of human trafficking into reality. By partnering with experts in the field, listening to the issues agencies face, and investigating the problems inherent to this broad-reaching issue, we began building a collaborative to address the dearth of housing, expand the capacity of service providers, and unlock funding sources to support the diverse population of human trafficking survivors.

We have learned a lot from this work.

Our exposure has taught us more than just the specifics of shelter.

Here’s a rule of thumb that we’ve taken from this work: If you are getting a good deal on a product or service, somebody somewhere is paying the cost for you.

Often, those paying that cost are the estimated 21 million people in forced labor globally. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the phones we use — all of these products and more were often produced with forced labor. It’s hard for consumers to avoid; for companies to root out; and for governments to stop.

Enter the second challenge from the Partnership for Freedom: Rethink Supply Chains.

Rethink Supply Chains calls for a wide range of tech solutions to fight labor trafficking. Technology alone can’t end labor trafficking, but a tech-informed approach can have a dramatic impact in a range of areas.

There is room for more tech-informed solutions.

Here are the places for civic tech solvers, advocates, startups, and social entrepreneurs to explore:

1. Market Disruption. For many workers, finding a job abroad depends on a complex and murky web of intermediaries, like labor brokers and recruiters. These middlemen promise good jobs that may or may not exist, extract fees for their services, and often leave job-seekers in debt or vulnerable to abuse. From AirBnB to Uber, technology is deliberately and effectively eliminating middlemen in countless sectors — could labor recruitment be one of them? Can technology cut out the middleman by facilitating direct connections between workers and verifiable, safe employment?

2. Bridging the Data Divide. Labor trafficking thrives in the shadows — which is to say, it thrives in data-poor environments. Complex supply chains leave companies and consumers in the dark as to where their products are coming from and what the working conditions along the way look like. Labor recruiters rely on the opacity of their industry and the lack of feedback loops to mislead and exploit workers. Can better data collection, analysis, use and re-use through new channels and methods- like using mobile tech to gather input directly from workers, social listening, or innovative rapid polling methods- help bring transparency and give us the right information at the right time needed to take action? Can big data and data science point us towards places with the highest risks?

3. The Blockchain. The promise of a transparent distributed ledger is already transforming currency and trust-based transactions. Many more applications are waiting in the wings, from verifying the origins of products to making contracts more transparent. Opaque networks of misleading and extortionate payments and contracts lie at the heart of labor trafficking and forced labor. Can we use the blockchain to trace at-risk goods in supply chains where labor trafficking is found? Can we use it to verify information and transform the complex web of transactions and contracts across the recruitment industry?

4. Mobile Money. Financial access can be the first step to foundational progress in workers’ rights. The proliferation of wireless access and low cost smartphones creates huge new opportunities to empower workers with better financial tech — and better protect them from exploitation in the process. Stripe, Square, and Venmo have radically transformed transactions in venues that are used to accept cash only, while M-Pesa and other mobile providers have radically transformed mobile banking in developing countries. Can we offer unbanked and underbanked workers better ways to get paid through mobile or digital payments, track and document transactions or contracts, or trace and verify payments?

5. Sensor Technology. If we don’t know where our goods come from, we can’t figure out if they’re made with forced labor. But new emphasis on tracing goods — for food safety, for sustainability, for consumer differentiation, and more — creates new potential opportunities to understand the labor conditions of the goods we buy and sell. The rise of sensors can help us get to the hardest-to-tackle nodes of the supply chain more deeply and cheaply than ever before. Can we use traceability tech to tackle labor conditions?

Rethink supply chains and imagine a free world.

We know from our own experience that turning your technological imagination to the fight against human trafficking can provide tremendous opportunities. We’re excited to see more solutions inspired by the Rethink Supply Chains Challenge. They are accepting submissions through December 13, 2015. Will you contribute your ideas?