Code 8.7: A Survivor Perspective

26 April 2019
Research Innovation

Sharlena Powell  | Housing Justice Campaign Chairperson, Voices of Women

I wanted to provide a Survivor Leader’s perspective of the Code 8.7 conference, especially since the sessions focused on a rather unusual subject in the eyes of a survivor: artificial intelligence and computational science.

The Code 8.7 Organizing Committee brought together a phenomenal wealth of knowledge and expertise to strategize how to use technology to end modern slavery worldwide. I was grateful to be among the four Survivor Leaders who were given the opportunity to attend the event, thanks to the Code 8.7 Survivor Leader Scholarship Programme. I appreciated how straightforward the scholarship application was, and I’m happy the Organizing Committee made it so that there were no barriers for survivors to overcome in order to be seated at the table.

The conference felt very inclusive. Beyond the presence of survivors, there was effort made to include diverse stakeholders and speakers from academia, international organizations, business and civil society as well as the general public through the use of social media and by live streaming the event.

The first day kicked off with a survivor perspective, something that is usually saved for the concluding comments, often appearing as an afterthought. Speakers from AnnieCannons discussed their “Earn to Learn” programme as well as their take on using machine learning to upgrade the quality of care given to survivors. Their mission seeks a survivor-centred design, with roots in finding, elevating and echoing survivor voices. Also mentioned was the importance of accurate data. With the economic opportunities available through their organization, AnnieCannons pinpointed methodologies for hiring trafficking survivors, addressing the underlying risks survivors face in becoming homeless and starving post-rescue, and helping survivors find a path towards independence.

The agenda made space for many opportunities to connect with others throughout the conference. I was happy to brainstorm with Jennifer Gentile Long, the CEO of Aequitas, an NGO currently developing data optimization techniques in the fields of human trafficking and domestic violence. Aequitas also assists several United States government agencies, city governments and non-profit organizations to identify trends and key indicators for effective strategies between touchpoints where survivors may interact with government systems and support services.

In the “Mining Government Data to Reach Target 8.7” hothouse, Luis Fabiano de Assis of SmartLab explained his focus on combining vulnerability measurements, digital observatories and storytelling to predict risks and identify where future rescues can be possible. This type of open and notable communication is where true progress can gain momentum. Researchers can honour survivors’ stories as they work to tackle the multilevel issues of modern slavery and human trafficking.

There was also an interesting discussion on integrating targeted surveys into the US Census to estimate probabilities of human trafficking, which seemed to be a very timely suggestion. Including survivors’ perspective in this exercise could make approaching populations that are unaware of what human trafficking is more productive. Furthermore, unless findings are updated and maintained, data can become easily outdated. This is where computational science comes in as an accelerator, allowing information to be unpacked quickly and efficiently. There is also a need to develop a universal glossary of terms created by survivors with input from researchers, which would facilitate this work.

I was also struck by the conversations on moving away from being reactive and instead being predictive and developing real-time solutions. One important thought to bear in mind, sparked by a conversation with Heidi Cooper of Polaris, was that there are great challenges in proving the impact of an intervention when it is focused on preventative measures. That was one “aha” moment for me at this conference.

Phil Bennett also gave an empathetic and erudite intervention, saying “We don’t want to drop a rock in the river and think the water will stop flowing. Instead, we need to build a dam. Intelligent technology is that dam.” He also mentioned the importance of tracking the life cycle of cases, including the treatment phase and final outcomes.

Certain comments struck a negative chord, particularly the mention of “survivors rarely using the future tense, or talking in any way about the future” and “atemporality.” These comments were very generalist and disempowering to the vast survivor community. Although there was a follow-up on “living in a total present [state]”, many survivors often take such statements to be discouraging character judgements.

As a community organizer, advocate for combatting violence with several New York-based NGOs and member of several anti-trafficking task forces, I often ask myself the question raised by Sophia Tu of IBM’s corporate citizenship department: “What is the motivation for a company to be a part of this work?” As Code 8.7 made clear, one answer is that sustainability and protecting human rights can be good for a business’s bottom-line.

I appreciate the opportunity to document my truths. I’m here to offer a practical assurance to survivors and our collective future: “Stay Woke” in articulating your views on these complex issues. When it’s necessary, interrupt what you thought was normal, and design your own kind of big data sourcing that works for you. Whether it be focused on healing mechanisms or economic stability, just know that you are and can be in control of your tomorrow, and live what you create every day.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Code 8.7 Conference Report. Read all the contributions here. Download the full PDF report here.

Sharlena Powell is a Community Organizer with Voices of Women.

This article has been prepared by the author as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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