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March 23, 2016

From DC to Cape Town: Sharing our data collection technology with hotlines around the world

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." - Nelson Mandela

Every day, human trafficking victims and survivors call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) and text Polaris's BeFree Textline, and our hotline advocates connect them to the resources and services they need. This is the most important function of the hotlines. But did you know that something else is going on behind the scenes?

Data Collection

One of the biggest obstacles we face when fighting human trafficking is how little we know about the problem. From recruitment methods to locations of trafficking networks, there is so much that we still don’t know.

That's why, whenever the NHTRC or BeFree Textline receives a call or text, our hotline advocates record as much data as they can into a software called Salesforce—the tool we use to collect and organize data. As a result, we’ve gained critical insights into human trafficking in the U.S.

Keep in mind, both hotlines are completely confidential, and there is not a set list of questions that hotline advocates ask callers to fulfill rigorous data collection needs. The well-being of the caller is the first and foremost priority.

Developing a Database

In the last eight years of running the NHTRC and three years of running the BeFree Textline, we have built a highly customized version of Salesforce which is designed to fit the unique needs of an anti-human trafficking hotline. The goal has always been to capture and elevate the complex and courageous stories of survivors and use this information to better equip the anti-trafficking field to put this $150 billion criminal industry out of business.

We don't take this responsibility lightly. Every detail of the system has been debated, refined, and tested. We've also learned a number of valuable lessons along the way about data science, quality control, and how to ensure data is captured in ways that are easily analyzable and victim centered.

We can proudly say that because of this experience, we have accrued one of the largest and most informative human trafficking datasets on the globe. But, it was a long, and sometimes arduous, process. In order to ensure other organizations have access to refined data collection systems without having to repeat the process of designing a database from scratch, we began packaging our tracking system developed in Salesforce and called it "Freedom Force"—an effort that was made possible through a Force for Change grant from Salesforce.org.

Now, we travel around the world sharing Freedom Force with other countries who would otherwise not be able to effectively collect the sort of data that is vital to understanding—and eradicating—trafficking networks. To date, we have shared Freedom Force with national hotlines in Greece, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and now South Africa.

From DC to Cape Town

In mid-February, we arrived in Cape Town with a fully developed Freedom Force training curriculum prepared, ready to train the four hotline pioneers of A21 South Africa. Our week-long training focused on using Freedom Force, data collection best practices, database administration, hotline operations, protocol development, and some core hotline skills including safety planning, crisis response, and emotional support.

The 85-degree warm summer breeze felt worlds away from the freezing February rain of Washington, DC, but as our trip progressed, the similarities between our experiences in the anti-trafficking field became obvious. We found that we share a lot of the same struggles when it comes to adequately funding, staffing, and gaining stakeholder support for our hotlines. But we also shared a hope that, powered by strategic insight, we could make a difference.

Throughout our trip, we were painfully reminded that the brutal tactics employed by traffickers are not limited by geography. Different types of trafficking may occur in both countries, but when we use the same technology, our shared understanding of the issue deepens. Learning from each other, we were more motivated than ever to evolve at an even greater pace. We hope that more organizations will adopt Freedom Force so that, together, we can stand in solidarity and fight for a world in which all people are free.

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Blog Posts by Brittany Anthony