Hacking human trafficking: young Colombians develop apps to fight the crime

Mobile Apps

Mobile AppsA range of mobile apps have been developed in recent years that allow authorities to identify trafficking victims more quickly and easily

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA – (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Global tech giant IBM, the United Nations, campaigners and university students will join forces in a hackathon to develop an app to combat human trafficking, the first event of its kind in Colombia, organizers said on Monday.

The hackathon, scheduled for August 31 in Bogota, will bring together teams of university students, as well as young computer programmers, engineers, and designers to create a prototype mobile app or website.

“It’s a race against the clock for 32 hours,” said Jesus David Tabares, corporate citizenship leader for Colombia and Venezuela at IBM.

“We want to inspire creativity and include other people who don’t know, and others who work in the human trafficking field.”

Participants will develop their apps using IBM software databases and technology, including artificial intelligence software for voice and facial recognition.

Colombia is home to 131,000 trafficking victims, according to the anti-slavery group Walk Free Foundation.

Across Latin America, women and girls being sold into sex work is the most common form of human trafficking, according to the U.N.

Increasing numbers of young people are being trafficked online, fueled by the global spread of high-speed internet and rising mobile phone ownership, experts say.

Globally, a third of all trafficking victims are children in a crime worth $150 billion a year, the U.N.’s International Labour Organization estimates.

Digital technology – in particular, encrypted instant messaging services like WhatsApp that allow users to remain anonymous – is increasingly used by traffickers to trap victims.

“We have to face technology with technology and use new tools, which this hackathon aims to develop,” said Sebastian Arevalo, head of the Pasos Libres Foundation, a Colombian anti-trafficking group that is supporting the event.

“In the future, we’re going to see organized crime use technology more and more. Why? Because the risk and cost is less,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The hackathon will set techies three key challenges that authorities face when tackling trafficking, said Carlos Perez of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia (UNODC), which is co-organizing the event.

The app should help identify victims of sex trafficking, improve coordination between authorities when possible victims are spotted at airports and bus terminals, or help prevent the online distribution of child sexual abuse material.

Julian Arenas, a computing engineering student at Bogota’s Los Andes University, said he knew little about trafficking but he hoped to take part in the hackathon.

“It’s an opportunity to innovate for a social cause,” said the 19-year-old.

A range of mobile apps have been developed in recent years that allow authorities to identify trafficking victims more quickly and easily, campaigner Arevalo said.

Apps also allow users and victims to report the crime and upload evidence, such as photos and audio files, in a safe and anonymous way.

Winners of the hackathon will be awarded a contract with the UNODC to develop their app to be used initially in Colombia.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jared Ferrie. ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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