Why UX Design Is Critical In the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Simple technology is key to making a social impact, writes Uptake.org’s Andrew Means

At Uptake.org, we build tools that use data science and machine learning to address the world’s most pressing problems. One of those problems is human trafficking.

Our ReRoute application gives border monitoring organizations the insight they need to better identify victim profiles.

We built the tool because border crossing stations are critical locations where a life-saving intervention can happen before the years of exploitation and trauma occur.

Border monitors are trained to look for warning signs and interview potential victims, learning their demographics and reasons for leaving the country. However, in order to recognize potential victims, monitors need to have a constantly changing strategy. As they catch on to patterns in victims’ stories, traffickers switch methods to avoid detection.

To solve this problem, ReRoute uses machine learning to recognize patterns in interview data. The tool identifies emerging victim profiles and locations where victims are coming from, as well as illuminates patterns such as times of day and days of week when traffickers use particular routes.

Andrew Means, director of Uptake.org, recently traveled to the Nepalese-Indian border to see the tool in action. Here’s what he learned on the trip.

Standing in the middle of a bustling road, hundreds of people walking, riding motorbikes, shouting at one another as they passed by, I realized my original plan wouldn't work. I had traveled here to get a sense of what kinds of technology might help our partner organizations better intervene in the trafficking of humans across the Nepal - India border, but I came with assumptions that were quickly being proven wrong.

Back in my office in Chicago, I had an idea of what I thought would work. I knew they were already using tablets to fill-out long interview forms. What if we did this in a smarter way, asking as few questions as possible to determine trafficking risk and giving the border monitor real-time information about the risk level of the individual in front of them?

Standing there in that road, it hit me that it wouldn't work. The monitors weren't sitting there collecting information on the devices in a nice, controlled setting. They were running up to Tuk-Tuks and pulling them over to ask the passengers a few questions. Then if they determined it worthwhile, they would sit down with them and have an intensely personal conversation. The tablet was an afterthought-- something that was filled out after the interview was concluded. To put a tablet between the interviewer and the victim would represent a cultural challenge.

For three days we visited a variety of border crossings that our partners were monitoring. Some were chaotic. Some were remote. Some had natural barriers that forced useful focal points. Others were vast wide open stretches where people freely crossed back and forth.

This trip to the border of Nepal and India reinforced something I have long believed: If you are building technology for use in the field, you must visit the field. 

There is no possible way to fully understand the environment without immersing yourself in it. You need to see the conditions as they are, not as they are described to you as you sit in a far-off comfortable office.

We spent hours listening to the stories of the people who spend their days scouring thousands of faces looking for signs of trafficking risk. They talked to us about the risks they face, the threats to their lives, homes, and families. They spoke of the grueling conditions and took great pride in the lives that they had saved from unimaginable exploitation.

I returned with a renewed vision for how technology can assist these partners in their work. That the right technology in their hands will in fact help them be more effective in their operations. But it is about the right technology. Not the most sophisticated. Not the most interesting to develop. Not the one that is full of features they will never utilize. Simple technology that alleviates their pain points and propels their work forward.

At Uptake, this user centeredness is core to our culture. While we are a software and data science company by practice, we are really in the business of change. If our technology solutions don't lead to actual change in the field and change in practice, it doesn't matter how awesome our algorithms are.

If you’re working on technology projects, especially projects in the social sector, don’t assume you understand what it is like in the field. Take the time, spend the resources to get out there and see the environment first hand. It is the only way to ensure that you are building the right thing. You’re not as smart as you think you are.