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When Every Minute Matters

Using Data to Dismantle a Criminal Industry

Human trafficking is a $150 billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to over 40 million people globally—and it happens in every country in the world. Polaris is an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking and restoring freedom to survivors.

For over a decade, Polaris has operated the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. This 24/7 resource connects victims and survivors to the services they need to get help and stay safe, as well as equips the anti-trafficking movement with tools and data to combat trafficking. The hotline also provides a way for community members to report tips about potential incidents of human trafficking. Through the hotline alone, Polaris has learned about more than 40,000 cases of human trafficking over the past decade.

Given the clandestine nature of human trafficking, data on the crime has been fragmented, siloed, and incomplete. In the process of serving thousands of individuals over the years, we have learned key trends and attributes of trafficking itself. In 2017, Polaris launched a breakthrough report, “The Typology of Modern Slavery,” revealing for the first time that there are 25 distinct types of human trafficking in the U.S. alone. The report broke down the broad categories of sex trafficking and labor trafficking into the distinct business models traffickers use—from labor trafficking in agriculture, restaurants, and nail salons, to sex trafficking in fake massage parlors and escort services.

Today, the hotline, with its 3,000+ service provider and law enforcement partners across the country, is the hub and data engine for the U.S. anti-trafficking movement. The insights we uncover help generate data-driven strategies and tools to support the anti-trafficking movement and allied fields (like domestic violence and child protection) so that we can get upstream to prevent and disrupt trafficking at scale.

This hotline is a massive technology platform comprised of many integrated systems. We receive hundreds of incoming “signals,” meaning calls, texts, chats, emails, and webforms, each day, and we always have people in the queue waiting to talk to us. Because those reaching out to us may be in life-threatening situations, it’s vital that a glitch in any of our systems is reported swiftly and routed to the person with the appropriate expertise so they can immediately address and resolve the issue. Coordination becomes mission-critical when an advocate is on the phone with someone in crisis.

Responders Taking Action in Real Time

We began our journey with PagerDuty this spring. Currently, our tech team uses PagerDuty’s Modern Incident Response to escalate urgent issues that come from the 24/7 hotline. When an incident occurs, it is escalated either through Live Call Routing or through the integration with our help desk when someone submits an urgent ticket.

For example, let’s say the hotline receives a phone call from a woman working as a nanny for a family who has locked up her passport, underpaid her, forced her to work 18-hour days, and monitored her access to the outside world. One day, her traffickers leave her alone in the house for 20 minutes to run errands and she finally sees an opportunity to reach out for help, and runs to a neighbor to ask to use the phone.

If, on the day the nanny was finally able to reach out, a technical glitch occurred on one of our systems that prevented a hotline advocate from viewing the list of appropriate social services in the city where she is located, then the chance for her to leave that trafficking situation could be lost.

However, if we take that same scenario, and our advocate was able to reach out to the tech team immediately through PagerDuty rather than scrolling through a long protocol document to find the number of the appropriate tech team member, the story would end very differently. With PagerDuty, our advocate would quickly reach the right person, a backup system would be deployed, and the advocate would be able to make a safety plan for the nanny and connect her with the services she needed—all before her traffickers returned home.

More to Be Done

As a result of using PagerDuty, our IT team’s incident escalation and response process is reduced by roughly one hour for every urgent issue. These 60 minutes that we get back translates to an additional 10 people who we are able to serve each month—and that’s a conservative estimate.

We hope to continue to improve Polaris’ efficiency and effectiveness by building the PagerDuty workflow across the organization and have our non-IT teams integrate PagerDuty into their own incident response plans. Our vision is for PagerDuty to be our core mode of escalation across all functions, including (but not limited to) managing technology issues and engaging subject matter experts in real time.

When someone’s safety and trust is on the line, every second matters. It takes courage and strength for a victim to reach out for help. Timeliness and effectiveness are everything in these circumstances, and those are the elements essential to building a platform here at Polaris that people can rely on. We’re in the trust business, and this trust is tethered to the speed of our responses and the stability of our systems.

If you would like to contribute to our efforts, please visit our website to learn how you can help.


Nancy McGuire Choi is the chief operating officer of Polaris with over 15 years of experience as a social enterprise executive in international development, information management, and technology information. Nancy leads Polaris’ strategy and day-to-day operations, in addition to managing the organization’s data, technology, and operations teams. Before Polaris, she served as the chief operating officer at Development Gateway, an international nonprofit that creates digital tools and services to support data-driven decisions in international development.

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