A COVID-19 Response to Modern Slavery using AI Research

26 June 2020
Research Innovation

Bethany Jackson  | Research Associate & Fellow in Antislavery Social-Ecological Systems Modelling, the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham
Benjamin Lucas  |  Assistant Professor & Data Scientist, the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham

There has never been a better time to use AI and computational science, including remote-sensing and social media monitoring, for identifying vulnerability to modern slavery. Countries have deployed varying forms of lockdown measures, and the impact of COVID-19 is predicted to heighten risk of exploitation and disrupt anti-slavery efforts. Traditional on-the-ground routes for gathering research data have been stymied by those lockdowns, as well as sickness and the reduction of funding across the NGO sector. Responding to the possibility that computational science may offer a remote way to push forward with data collection and research discovery, one of the first UK All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) to announce a COVID-19 thematic session was the APPG on AI.

Responding to the idea that AI has a role to play in the response to COVID-19, members of Code 8.7 have begun using data science, complex systems modelling, remote-sensing and AI/machine-learning to identify risk factors for modern slavery that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and to investigate how the anti-slavery sector has responded.

Using Global Space Technology to Identify New Vulnerability

Remote sensing and machine learning technologies are used at the Rights Lab to investigate modern slavery in international supply chains such as brick-making, mining and forestry where cases of modern slavery occur and there is simultaneously an adverse impact on the environment.  These modelling and data resources are now being explored by Rights Lab researchers including Dr Bethany Jackson for potential use in tracking new markers of vulnerability resulting from COVID-19, for example: patterns of activity/inactivity within these sectors during the pandemic; continued activity in the context of full national lock-downs; or the way in which activity occurring in environmentally protected areas could be indicative of exploitative working practices.

Mobilizing global space technologies may identify these patterns via, for example, pollutants from brick kilns, and mapping of tree loss within tropical forests, where these sorts of activities are not permitted.  However, to confirm that these activities are markers of subjection to modern slavery, rather than actions taken by communities to ensure their own survival,  collaboration with partners on the ground will be key. As with all remote sensing research, any findings should be investigated post-pandemic when safe to do so at the ground level to ensure labour rights are being upheld in these areas and the satellite data interpretation are accurate.

Motherboard. Unsplash/Michael Dziedzic

Tracking an Anti-Slavery Response on Social Media Using Big Data

The Rights Lab’s “Social Listening and Communications Engagement Project” (SOLACE) blends data science, sociology and policy research into a form of computational social science: web monitoring, information retrieval and machine learning that enable social media monitoring as a kind of ‘social listening’ at scale. Foundational work has analysed online manifestations of social movements for combating modern slavery as well as NGO activism around labour exploitation in supply chains. These analytical methods have recently been adapted by Dr Benjamin Lucas to investigate the modern slavery implications of COVID-19. Tracking of a number of major modern slavery organizations has revealed a mixture of communications falling into three categories. ‘Status Quo’ activity is indicated by ongoing, foundational communications using hashtags such as #EndItMovement and #ModernSlavery. ‘Preservation’ communications are those where actors in the anti-slavery sphere generate new message types, not necessarily related to COVID-19 but coinciding with it (e.g. #InternationalWomensDay, #iwd2020 or #EUGreenDeal). “Adaptation and Solidarity” messaging is seen where anti-slavery actors adapt messages to align with themes such as #covid19 and #Coronavirus, as well as joining in with support for other causes during the crisis (e.g. #StayHomeSaveLives, #FrontlineHeroes or #ThanksHealthHeroes).

Tracking shifting patterns of communications using large-scale data science approaches generates a “bird’s eye” perspective on the issues resonating the most with anti-slavery organizations and the global public, traceable responses from policy makers and the news media, and rapid-response development of strategic communication and policy guidelines. The primary mission here is harvesting this data at scale to provide an overview of civil society actor priorities and agendas, and tracking shifts in these during COVID-19. Another key dimension is the monitoring of public issue salience and reactions, where we analyse the extent to which those members of the broader public engaged with SDG 8.7 (and indeed, other SDGs), engage with and help to amplify specific issues and causes. This by extension helps government bodies and other civil society actors to adapt and organize their priorities based on our data-driven vantage point.

Concluding Remarks

The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to severely disrupt the combat of modern slavery, having already given rise to spikes in domestic abuse, setbacks to efforts to combat child labor and supply chain disruptions in vulnerable industries, among many other tragic flow-on effects.

The Rights Lab has taken this catastrophe as a catalyst for the rapid mobilization of thought leadership and real-time commentary to guide the modern slavery research community, as well as an opportunity to rethink priority research domains to preserve efforts geared towards achieving SDG 8.7 with rapid-response, adaptability and scalability in mind. This broadly involves the application of data science and applied AI methods, given their ability to support remote sensing and efficient ‘bird’s eye view’ perspectives, to identify risk factors for modern slavery that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and to investigate how the anti-slavery sector has responded and importantly, how it will continue to build resilience.

Dr Benjamin Lucas is Assistant Professor & Data Scientist at the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Bethany Jackson is a Research Associate & Fellow in Antislavery Social-Ecological Systems Modelling at the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham.

This article has been prepared by Benjamin Lucas and Bethany Jackson as a contribution 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 authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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