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The Fight Against Child Sexual Exploitation, Powered by a Text Message

By May 8, 2014 No Comments

The post below was submitted by Twilio, one of our technology partners. It is part of a series of posts written by our technology partner organizations on the issue of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Twilio is a cloud communications company that allows software developers to programmatically make and receive phone calls and receive text messages using its web service APIs.

When a victim of human trafficking tries to reach out for help, a phone call can be dangerous – even life threatening. That’s where a text message can make a difference.

Our mission with Twilio.org is to provide social good organizations with the communications tools that help them make a greater impact. Since launching Twilio.org last year, we’ve seen organizations innovate on the Twilio platform to aid in the fight against child sexual exploitation. The main point of communication? A text message.

BeFree Shortcode: Thorn and Twilio

In 2013, Twilio partnered with Thorn, The Salesforce Foundation, and Polaris Project—who manages the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a national, toll-free hotline—to create text shortcode BeFree (233733), a way for victims of sex trafficking to reach out for help through text message.

One text can be the difference between being saved and being a prisoner to your pimp. We’ve already seen the impact that a single SMS can have on someone’s life. Since BeFree launched last year, the Polaris Project managed 1,226 unique SMS conversations; of those, 74% were tied to sex trafficking. While not all of these conversations were directly with victims, the Polaris Project documented 17% of all SMS conversations to be directly with victims. This 17% rate is almost double the 9% of all calls that the voice hotline has directly with victims. These statistics show that the BEFREE short code can double the opportunity for a victim to directly reach out for help.

While smart phones may seem universal, and the development of mobile apps continues to grow daily, the reality is that the majority of the world still uses standard feature phones.A study from mobiThinking estimates that current global smartphone penetration is only 16.7%. Ericsson forecasted in 2012 that smartphone subscriptions worldwide would hit 1.1 billion – while feature phone subscriptions will hit 5 billion. Moreover, a 2013 Nielson study reported that smartphone owners use SMS (86% use at least once a month) more regularly than apps (62% use at least once a month), or email (74% use at least once a month).

Text messaging and voice calls are still the common denominator across different cell phone models, platforms, and choice of communications mediums. What’s exciting about this, is that now more than ever, these communication mediums are available as a platform to build exactly what you want, how you want it.

Community Mobilization

Another example of how organizations are using text messaging for good comes from one of our community partners, The Lassy Project in Boulder, Colorado. The Lassy Project aims to stop child abduction before it starts through connected communities and instant communications. When speaking with founder John Guydon, he shared a story about a girl who was abducted while walking home, on her own street. A neighbor attempted to stop the kidnapping but failed. It was 3 hours until an Amber Alert went out. In many places, that child could already be a state or two away.

Lassy aims to drive effective mass mobilization that creates localized, crowd sourced action if and when a child goes missing, opening up a greater possibility of stopping a tragedy before it starts. The moment a parent realizes their child is missing, the reaction can be chaotic and unorganized — emails, phone calls, fliers. The Lassy Project strives to provide an established community for parents to reach out to in emergency situations, sometimes escalating and resolving an issue within the community before law enforcement needs to be reached.

Building Mobile Apps to Combat Sex Trafficking

Over the past five years, The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 9,298 unique cases of human trafficking. The federal government counted 840,279 missing persons cases in 2001, all except 50,000 were juveniles. Abduction of both children and adults is an issue we are still fighting. One example comes from Chin Xin-Ci, a victim of a luckily failed abduction that happened in the middle of the day – her experience is documented here.

Chin soon after created a mobile app to combat incidents like this called “Watch Over Me.” This app empowers users with an undetectable tool that already resides in their purse or pocket – the mobile phone. Using a variety of communication channels from SMS to Facebook, you can set the triggers you want for an emergency broadcast or kick off a video record function from a secret movement. Stats from their launch showed users sending over 5,000 messages out daily to stay in touch with those who love them.

Many stories that are sparking change and innovation are heartbreaking, but the innovators are using raw emotion to tackle these difficult challenges head on. Technology is changing the way we can be proactive and reactive, and it’s changing the way we communicate.

At Twilio.org, our goal is to provide communications technologies to social good initiatives that want to amplify their impact through technology. Through product resources and open source tools like our Rapid Response Kit, we hope to support and empower nonprofits with technology so they can focus on changing the world. To learn more please visit Twilio.org.

Meghan Murphy is the Senior Community Manager at cloud-communciations platform company Twilio, and leads the Twilio.org program. Follow her on Twitter @megmurph or visit megmurph.com.