Meet the Rethink Supply Chains Challenge Finalists | IST Research

18th March 2016 Posted by: Cat Cochrane

In the past three years, Partnership for Freedom has collaborated on two innovation challenges to inspire, reward, pilot and potentially scale constructive solutions to end labour trafficking and support survivors.

In 2015, PFF called upon developers, designers, advocates and innovators to submit concepts for technological solutions that identify and address labour trafficking in global supply chains for goods and services for the Rethink Supply Chains Challenge.

In the fifth of our challenge finalists series, we chat to IST Research, a data analytics system that scrapes web data to monitor social media and public internet sources for indicators of labor exploitation.

IST Research


//  Can you share with us the digital solutions IST Research has in identifying and addressing labor trafficking in global supply chains?

We are configuring our Pulse technology to create a deployable labor exploitation detection system. Pulse is a data collection and analysis system that enables the compilation of information from hard-to-reach populations around the world through various forms of media; including text message, interactive voice response (IVR), smartphone applications, interviews, paper-to-digital technologies and web forms.

The modular design is adaptable across issues and geographic areasfrom monitoring and evaluating programs in Zambia to launching security campaigns in Afghanistan. The data collected from respondents can then be combined with automated collection from the Internet including open, deep, and dark web sources, and including social media. The information collected can be anything from text, images or audio, and can come from a variety of websites, such as those that advertise for labor or escort services.

The information collected is then normalized and analyzed to identify the relationships between data points to gain a broader understanding of the scope of potential trafficking or labor exploitation activity, the areas in which it may be occurring, and the entities involved.

We envision an iterative approach in which findings from one source drive the collection in the other to continuously hone labor trafficking detection. The combination of active population engagement with passive internet monitoring to aggregate and understand any information created from any event in the world represent the digital solutions for addressing labor trafficking in global supply chains.

//  And how do the solutions address workers’ voices, recruitment and traceability?


 Our solution is to apply Pulseour proven technology to identify and communicate in a victim-centered and effective manner with at-risk populations in disconnected areas, very often the target of traffickersto serve as means to provide a voice to the voiceless.  

In addition, Pulse identifies the echoes of labor exploitation on the internet and social media using incorporated open, deep and dark web analytic tools. The use of this multi-perspective capability provides the ability to drill down on how the indicators of labor exploitation and trafficking manifest on different social media platforms and develop methods to extract web data, providing the most complete footprint of criminal networks.

Through two-way communications, we provide a means to provide real-time information and on the conditions of vulnerable people. Through detailed analysis of job ads and other recruitment websites, we can identify potentially abusive recruitment networks and supplement that information with data from direct communications with the potential victims, while also connecting victims to support services. Additionally, as survivors and their friends and family increasingly use social media to bring attention to abuses by employers. Given the lack of effective reporting mechanisms, with Pulse, we can bring attention to the voices of victims by incorporating their work experiences from social media.


//  What are the biggest challenges in deploying the Pulse platform and establishing communications with local populations?


Pulse reaches out to target populations using information campaigns via media sources they currently ingest and gathers their responses through accessible mobile technology. For example, recent field work using Pulse in Uganda successfully leveraged local radio stations to broadcast stories related to overseas labor recruitment agencies and successfully used these broadcasts to recruit participants to opt-in to Pulse' data collection efforts.

This poses a challenge, however, as to be most effective in reaching the target population, we must have an intimate understanding of native sources of media and technologies and define specific engagement strategies to ensure we are able to connect with the workers in the field. We intend to partner with local worker advocacy groups to best inform the strategy of our communication and engagement plans.

Additionally, Pulse also analyzes open, deep and dark web data to identify online context of potential exploitation, including trafficking indicators, potential recruiters, purchasers of labor, and where exploitation may be occurring. This technique was most recently applied in another Pulse campaign in Belgium to collect data regarding Middle Eastern ex-patriot refugees in that country. We quickly learned that there were no foreign language radio or television broadcasts and that Facebook serves as the main form of media for this community.

As a result, outreach efforts will be focused on Facebook interactions. This aims to exemplify that there are multiple methods to engage a population, but frequently impossible to understand beforehand what method of communication will be more effective in collecting substantive data. For this reason  we emphasize partnering with local worker advocacy groups in this Challenge to best shape our engagement approach.   

//  How far can the reach of the Pulse platform spread across the globe? Do you foresee bureaucratic and/or cultural challenges in accordance to the nations where it is established?

Pulse was specifically design to not require cooperation with local authorities or telecommunications providers to conduct local data collection. We are able to purchase local SIM cards and use standard phones to serve as a gateway for polling. Pulse has been successfully implemented around the world and we believe it can achieve full global reach.

In fact, in collaboration with a program called Remote Year, one of our employees, starting in June, will specifically be focused on establishing Pulse networks in each of the 12 countries he will be visiting during the program.

So far, Pulse has been deployed in the following countries:

  • Liberia - Working directly with a local team in Liberia, we monitored the spread of Ebola and the public's reaction to government and NGO efforts to combat it.

  • Central & East Africa - We deployed Pulse campaigns in four countries to counter the operations of the Lord's Resistance Army and bring its fighters in from the bush.

  • Afghanistan – IST Research coordinated monitoring and evaluation efforts for USAID programs and helped provide data to analyze the most appropriate methods for local teacher pay.

  • Zambia - Working with local healthcare workers to advance the use of contemporary medical practices with the goal of reducing infant mortality rates.

  • Cameroon – IST Research currently works in support of a counter-Boko Haram mission for the US military. 

The Pulse platform is at the heart of everything we do as a company. From polling local populations through the mobile devices in their pockets to synthesizing and analyzing data we collect through custom web interfaces. It is scalable. It is lightweight in terms of set up. It is easy to use. Specifically, Pulse technology is built with off-the-shelf Android hardware that can be used on multiple deployments and can handle thousands of information relays per hour. It can be deployed in areas where technology and other resources are extremely scarce.



//  What projected impact will IST Research’ solutions have in connection to forced labor issues in five years time should you be the Rethink Supply Chains winner?

Winning the Grand Prize would put us on the path to becoming the partner of choice for organizations across the globe supporting vulnerable and exploited populations. We envision the Pulse technology serving a number of applications in this role, including an investigation tool in support of counter-trafficking law enforcement efforts, a corporate supply chain management tool to ensure internal compliance standards, and a risk management tool for private equity and other investment organizations, as well as a tool to connect disconnected and vulnerable people to valuable resources.

In each case, we view these applications as enabling a range of industries throughout the world to better address and ultimately minimize exploited labor conditions. More generally, the award will put us further down a path in five years to fully provide a rapidly configurable and customized solution to provide domain-specific internet search and dynamic communications and polling to verify the presence of exploitation and provide a means to link these workers to the support services they require.  

In addition to the specific application to supply chains and labor exploitation, we believe that Pulse can be the basis for a reliable, effective means of remote monitoring and program evaluation (M&E). Previously, working in conjunction with USAID and the Afghan government, we employed Pulse to assess performance of government services in the education sector. We leveraged basic mobile phone technology to help confirm the achievement of USAID’s objectives by sustaining monitoring, evaluation, and accountability efforts. While M&E is certainly applicable to counter labor exploitation programs, we believe that there is a wider range of applications within the umbrella of increasing human security in at risk populations.


"Pulse analyzes open, deep and dark web data to identify online context of potential exploitation, including trafficking indicators, potential recruiters, purchasers of labor, and where exploitation may be occurring."




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