How harnessing big data can combat human traffickers

A screenshot of The Edelman Predictive Intelligence Centre's (EPIC) interactive trafficking hotspot map across Asia Pacific.

Jonathan Hargreaves is global vice chair technology of Edelman Predictive Intelligence Centre. Ruth Dearnley is CEO of Stop the Traffik. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

(CNN)Mass adoption and availability of new technologies such as social media, e-payments and messaging apps have enhanced our lives in many ways, bridging distances and enabling us to connect and communicate conveniently and seamlessly. But often, the earliest adopters and exploiters of new technology are criminals.

They're swift to adapt technology to scale their operations by staying one step ahead of law enforcement. In fact, according to Europol, the greatest challenge in tackling organized crime is the level of sophistication in which criminals are exploiting technology.
There is one illegal industry operating with enormous global scale and sophistication as a result of technological manipulation: human trafficking. It's a global business that generates $150 billion profit annually, with 40 million humans currently exploited.
Through a combination of paid advertising on social media and other means of online recruitment, traffickers are luring victims with the promise of legitimate paid work.
    The only way to get ahead of what's happening is to be one step ahead of the traffickers, which means beating them at their own game. This is why we at the Edelman Predictive Intelligence Centre (EPIC) and STOP THE TRAFFIK (STT) are using big data to disrupt the human supply chain.

    AI and big data analytics give the big picture

    Until recently, it wasn't possible to deploy big data to get a full 360-degree view of an illegal industry that is as complex and stealthy as human trafficking, which is of course what the traffickers rely upon. The richest data tends to be the case files that are collected by a loosely affiliated network of mainly grassroots NGOs, but they don't have a holistic view of the problem to be able to utilize these insights. The good news: AI and big data analytics have upended all of this.
    By joining hands with NGOs to digitize their data and combining it with open source data, court cases and news in one centralized hub, we can now strive to understand the entire supply chain from source recruitment through to destination.
    What has our data shown us? That the best way to disrupt this multi-billion-dollar industry is to focus on recruitment -- in other words, choke off the supply. The biggest driver of the human trafficking business is money, but without human beings to trade there is no industry.
    Our approach to disrupting recruitment is twofold. We utilize data to identify trafficking hotspots and routes and then use the power of communications to educate and spread awareness.
    For example, after conducting analysis on a community in Bali, we were able to identify that trafficking was occurring on the island. To combat this, we ran a pre-campaign survey to measure the level of understanding of human trafficking within the Balinese population, and used those insights to formulate a targeted awareness campaign.
    Our intelligence showed us that one of the mechanisms traffickers use to recruit women and girls for the sex industry is befriending and building trust by gifting them handbags and smartphones. We then created a geo-targeted social media information campaign based on identified trafficking hotspots, developing tailored content that covered local issues to help facilitate conversations on the subject among the local community.
    We also created content targeting the local population to help them identify, report and take action on potential trafficking cases. In doing so, we educated potential victims and the public about the signs of trafficking recruitment and gave them information on who to contact for assistance.

    Making trafficking more difficult

    Awareness campaigns not only help reduce recruitment rates and support prevention, but also help build resilience in vulnerable communities. In our Bali campaign, amongst others, big data allows us to understand drivers of vulnerability in individual communities, which helps us create communications that emotionally resonate with these people.
    Only by understanding their circumstances are we able to influence them to act differently -- including knowing what signs to look for, not giving their debit card or passport to traffickers, or not agreeing to fly to another country for an opportunity that seems suspicious.
    Human trafficking has thrived because of seemingly bottomless profits and the ease with which the traffickers were able to manipulate quite simple technologies to their advantage.
      By deploying big data and the power of communications, we're able to decipher their recruitment patterns and apply communications to educate and ultimately stop recruitment. By increasing the difficulty of recruitment substantially, it acts as a significant deterrent for traffickers. By building resilient communities, we simultaneously make the trafficking business more challenging, riskier and less profitable.
      As trafficking becomes more difficult and less lucrative, traffickers will start to exit the industry.