Empower the downtrodden – Can technology help?
Having been brought up witnessing the iniquity of Apartheid South Africa, I have developed an extreme abhorrence of injustice, no matter who the perpetrator or the victim. So, when Mark Anderson asked me if I would participate in a panel at the FiRE conference looking at technology solutions to combat slavery and human trafficking, I jumped at the opportunity. You will probably be shocked to know that there are more slaves now than there were at the height of the 18th and 19th century slave trade, and, as my fellow panellist, Andrew Wallis, CEO of Unseen UK, explains, in terms of today’s money, the cost of a slave has fallen from $40,000 in the 19th century, to $400 today.
The panel was convened by well known actress, Julia Ormond who is Founder and President of the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET). What Julia and Andrew were looking for was a single, simple way to enable victims of trafficking to signal that they were in trouble wherever they happened to be in the world. This turns out to be a complicated problem which is why they sought my advice. An ideal solution would allow a person with possibly low literacy who has been moved to a country where they don’t speak the language to send a message to a single global number in a way that was surreptitious so that their trafficker could not check call logs to see that the message had been sent. In addition we cannot make any assumptions about what technology the victim will have access to – for example, today it is unlikely that they will have a smartphone and a data plan.
Of course there is an example of a near ideal solution built into every GSM phone, namely the 112 emergency number which works wherever you are in the world on every GSM phone (including 3G and LTE) irrespective of whether you are subscribed to the network whose signal you are picking up (you don’t even need a SIM card in the phone). We need the same thing for a trafficking rescue unit but unlike 112, which was built into the standards, we need to retrofit this to the existing phones and phone systems. Quite a challenge when you realise that there are approximately 200 countries and 600 mobile operators globally. Fortunately I have access to some of the best and brightest telecommunications minds in the world in Telstra and we have been contemplating a range of solutions including USSD, SMS, toll free numbers and voice mail. All have their downsides, but can still improve the situation.
Previous blogs from the FiRE conference