India’s new-age anti-trafficking tools: Big data, AR comics, mobile games

Monica Jha April 10, 2019 25 min

A girl wakes up in a tiny dark cell.

Where am I?

What is this place?

Why can’t I remember how I came here?

She knocks on the door. “Is anybody there?”

She paces up and down the room.

An older woman enters. Everybody calls her Masi; she runs a brothel.

A young girl, Meena, follows her into the room.

Masi: So you are awake. Meena, what is the name of this one?

Girl: What is my name? I… I can’t remember my name!

Masi: It happens, dear. Strong potions can make you forget everything. And what would you even do by remembering your name?

Meena: Her name is….

Masi: Leave it. Your name is Ruby. I’ll call you Ruby Darling.

Masi: Like it, Meena?

Meena: Sounds like a heroine, Masi.

Girl: I want to go home.

Masi: Of course, but have some food first. Meena, bring her some of last night’s leftovers.

The girl has two options.

Obey, and she gets food.

Resist, and she starves.

What do you think she should do?

Yes. It’s you who decides.

MISSING: Game for a Cause is a role-playing game about a trafficked girl, Champa, that puts the player in her shoes. “This makes you, the player, the protagonist,” says Leena Kejriwal, a Kolkata-based photographer and installation artist who conceived the game.

“You are responsible for her future and (her) experiences,” she says. “You also experience her helplessness and frustration first hand.”

‘MISSING: Game for a Cause’ is a role-playing game about a trafficked girl, Champa, that puts the player in her shoes.

Kejriwal first encountered trafficking in 2000 when she documented the lives of young girls and women in Kolkata. “The plight of these girls became the core of my subject matter as an artist,” she says.

While working with several NGOs in red-light areas, she was most distressed about the growing demand for paid sex, which pushed more girls into the sex trade. “The public, who is the demand-maker and the biggest stakeholder in the issue, was getting off scot-free. They were absent in all the conversations,” she says.

Kejriwal wanted to engage them.

In 2014, she launched a public art campaign, MISSING, funded through crowdsourcing, for girls who disappear into the world of forced sex work. She also made a five-minute film on Jaya Ghosh, a trafficking survivor who got out of sex work. Ghosh now works with an NGO for sex workers’ children in Bow Bazaar, a major red-light district in central Kolkata.

Kejriwal wanted to do more to raise awareness and began exploring digital media. “We realised that digital media is a very powerful platform to sensitise the public today on the seriousness of trafficking,” she says.

In the early days after the crowdfunding, Kejriwal was discussing video games with a friend. It suddenly dawned on her that a game would be a powerful way to engage the public. “In a film, you watch a story play out, while a game is immersive and engages you directly,” she says.

Over the last few years, a new category of digital games for the purpose of social change has emerged. These are known in the gaming industry as G4C, or Games for Change. Kejriwal began working on one.

The storyline was formed from interviews with victims and survivors. Satyajit Chakraborty, the founder of Flying Robot, an indie game development studio, travelled with Kejriwal to various red-light areas in West Bengal. Then, he designed and developed the point-and-click-style game.

“It’s meant for the public, it is meant for every demand-maker, be it a man, boy, woman or girl, who either passively or actively creates demand,” says Kejriwal.

Missing was launched on September 20, 2016 and is available for iOS, Android and PC users. It’s available in English and 12 Indian languages.

“The vernacular versions of the game enabled us to reach deep rural pockets and create change,” says Kejriwal. In urban areas, the game is being used to engage school students on the issue of sex trafficking.

Missing has registered more than half a million downloads and is played in more than 70 countries, including the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Brazil — countries severely affected by trafficking. “In an evaluation, we found that the persons who played the game reported a higher level of engagement than through a traditional format,” says Kejriwal.

Proceeds from sales of the game go towards creating training programs and recovery centres for rescued girls.

One crucial goal of Kejriwal’s project is to understand the choices by players, and their reactions to the game. Kejriwal collects data on this and shares it with policymakers.

These have also been of interest to researchers. Like Marcus Toftedahl, a lecturer at the School of Informatics of the University of Skovde in Sweden.

He first came across the game when he met Kejriwal and Chakraborty at a game developer conference organised by Nasscom in Hyderabad in 2016. MISSING won the ‘Indie Game of the Year’ title at the conference.

Toftedahl was intrigued. “It is a very unfair game. It contains a lot of frustrating sections, making me, as a player, feel hopeless, lost and disgusted,” he says. “This is one of the strengths of the game as I see it.”

But this can also be a risk, he adds. “It can (and it has) scared away players expecting an ‘ordinary’ game.”

This can be seen in the spectrum of reviews that the game has garnered on app stores.

Toftedahl, who researches on game development, published a paper on Missing in the International Journal of Serious Games in December 2018. He analysed the reviews to see if the game spread awareness on trafficking. He found most reviews and ratings were positive — 4- or 5-star ratings. “They often praise the story and the theme.”

Even in cases where the game got a 1-star rating, he found that the game succeeded in its objective. “Players giving the game a 1-star rating would often comment on the theme as well, but from a negative point of view,” he says.

This, according to him, was a positive response in relation to the theme. “Players gave the game a 1-star rating because they thought the game was disgusting or horrible, and it is! It is about trafficking, and that is disgusting and horrible.”

In his paper, he concludes that Missing is a serious game “embracing a theme with complex properties, important to highlight on a global scale”.

“Even though a game is not the sole solution, it can be a part of the solution,” says Toftedahl.

Kejriwal is encouraged by the response. Besides the Nasscom award, MISSING also won the Sandvik Diversity award, 2017, for impact and innovation to create social change.

Kejriwal now feels the need for the game to dive deeper into Champa’s life. Work on a second game, MISSING: The Complete Saga, has begun.

The new version is a 3D role-playing adventure, with longer and more immersive gameplay. This tells you not just about the escape of a trafficking survivor but her whole life. It starts from Champa’s childhood to her life as a survivor and the situation she faces after her return home. It also features day/night cycles, and each day you will be assigned new tasks. Kejriwal says the new game is designed to allow players more freedom and agency than in similar real-life solutions.

The project has raised $50,795 on Kickstarter from 455 backers.

Kejriwal says that the new game would emphasise the factors that land Champa in the clutches of traffickers. “Why wait for a girl to be trafficked to save her?”

Tech against trafficking

Of the estimated 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking globally, 3 million live in India. Perpetrators are increasingly using digital tools for trafficking.

On the other hand, technology has huge potential to fight against trafficking. While technology is not a silver bullet, the anti-trafficking community in India is using it to prevent and intervene in trafficking as well as identify and prosecute traffickers.

Some technologies have been in use for years — call records to track the location of a trafficker,  investigation of online ads selling sex services, and using video conferencing for survivors to appear in courts.

Tech tools have also empowered digital activism. One vigilant train passenger’s tweets got 25 minors rescued from a suspected human trafficking racket. Online petitions are another way of doing this. Under the human trafficking topic, shows 185 petitions. Anti-trafficking NGOs are using social media extensively to create awareness and raise funds.

Several organisations run social media campaigns that make consumers think about the supply chain. Prominent among them are the US Department of Labor’s Sweat and Toil resource base, Rethink Supply Chains of Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership to tackle human trafficking, and Good Guide.

Tech Against Trafficking is a coalition of global technology companies, civil society organizations, and the United Nations to use technology towards eradicateing human trafficking. Its founding members were BT Group, Microsoft, and Nokia, and members now include Amazon, and AT&T.

With over 800 million smartphone users expected in India by 2022, there is greater potential to prevent trafficking cases or rescue victims with timely information and quick action. Realising this, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation has started a 24×7 helpline (011-24368638) for citizens to report human trafficking, especially of children and women.

Crucially, a new wave of technology incorporating big data analytics and machine learning is showing potential to clamp down on trafficking further. Traffickers use digital tools in every aspect of the crime to avoid attention. But this is bound to leave traces. Big data analytics can help pull data from Google search trends, social media accounts, chat sessions, the deep web, and elsewhere to pinpoint traffickers.

If only it were that simple. India lacks data on human trafficking, creating an environment for crime to thrive. So the first step is to digitise and assimilate data on trafficking.

There are various agencies collecting data on trafficking in India — the police, the National Crime Records Bureau, Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs), child helplines, courts, hospitals, nonprofits, academia, and the ministries of social welfare, education, and women and child.

All this data, however, is collected in different formats and stored in silos. Agencies don’t share data with each other. And no agency collates it in one place.

Standardised formats are the first step. In a report on trafficking published in November 2013 by a group comprising Dasra, The Hummingbird Trust, Omidyar Network, and Kamonohashi Project, the authors recommend the use of a standardised format for recording and reporting data on sex trafficking that can be centralised at the local, district and national level.

“Analysing this information will lead to a better understanding of factors that lead to trafficking, connections to arms, drugs, labour trafficking, recruitment methods, demographics of victims such as nationality, ethnicity, gender, and age, victim characteristics such as prior education, employment, health, and income, trafficking routes and trafficker profiles,” the report mentions.

Tracking assets, building capabilities

One way to understand who the most vulnerable targets for trafficking are is to look for individuals with the least assets. Assets, in this context, can be a safe space, schooling, political awareness, or savings and loans.  

That’s the approach Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-trafficking NGO, has adopted.

“A teenage girl from a rural, poor and low caste family is most vulnerable to trafficking,” says Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap. “To prevent her from being trafficked, we try to build her capabilities.”

Apne Aap creates an asset card for each girl it covers — indicators that help assess the vulnerability of an individual. An Apne Aap worker asks a girl questions related to her access to social assets and documents her answers. Based on this, an asset card is issued, indicating how vulnerable she is to trafficking.

Recently, Apne Aap started using an Android application — Last Girl Ten Assets — to enter the answers and store records in a database. The database gives a comparison of the assets of the girls, making it easy to understand who requires attention and what assets are needed immediately.

“The app has standardised the format of data collection,” says Tinku Khanna, member of Apne Aap. “It helps me analyse the data and understand quickly that she doesn’t have a BPL card or a birth certificate. It helps me understand the gap easily.”

Apne Aap is using the app in a village in Bihar’s Araria district, which is identified as a backward district by NITI Aayog.

Khanna expects the app would help create a database with vulnerability indicators for a large number of people. “It can also be customised based on what assets are useful for persons in an area,” she says.

A superwoman fights gender violence in AR

Ram Devineni, an Indian-American artist and filmmaker, is working on an augmented reality (AR) comic book on sex-trafficking called ‘Priya and the Lost Girls’. “We have done a lot of research in Sonagachi (a red light district) in Kolkata. Also, the writer, Dipti Mehta, wrote an award-winning play set in a brothel in Mumbai,” says Devineni.

Devineni has earlier used AR in two comic books: Priya’s Shakti, a gang-rape survivor-turned-superhero who fights sexual violence, and Priya’s Mirror, in which she joins forces with a group of acid attack survivors fighting a demon-king.

In the AR comic book series, Priya is a rape survivor who fights gender-based sexual violence. | Source:

By scanning the comic books with the Blippar augmented reality app, readers can view animations, real-life stories, and other interactive elements that pop out of the pages. The images are markers that are activated through the Blippar app. The images can be mounted on walls, printed in comic books, on computer screens, or even on large murals, and the AR will still work. Embedded in the AR are many new layers including Devineni’s interviews with rape and acid attack survivors.

“Teenagers are at a critical age when they are learning about relationships and developing their opinions of each other. So, this comic book series is a powerful tool to talk about gender issues,” says Devineni.

‘Priya and the Lost Girls’ is expected to be out in November.

Chasing the money trail

Investigating the money trail could help greatly in investigating trafficking crimes and prosecuting traffickers.

Liberty Shared, an international nonprofit against trafficking, is looking to do that in India through its Information and Data Collaboration Programme. IDC collects data available publicly to create intelligence for preventing trafficking.

“We’re looking at payment systems that are being used in trafficking networks, says Leighton Joyce, director, IDC. “What sort of payment systems are used by traffickers, where clients are making payments via smartphones using Paytm or other mobile wallets.”  

They are also looking at how traffickers are making use of hawala, an informal, and often illegal, money transfer or remittance channel. For this, IDC partners with local organisations in India. In the process, it is also building a database on traffickers with detailed information on the perpetrators. The local organisations act as third-party providers of data for IDC.

“We’re focusing on high-risk industries. For example, the fishing industry. With this, we’re figuring out a lot of information on what’s happening on the ground. For example, we have figured that in India a lot of trafficking is internal,” says Joyce.

Similarly, to close the data gap on trafficking, Delhi-based NGO Shakti Vahini is building an online database of trafficking cases by sourcing data from more than 600 district courts.

STOP APP, by a UK-based anti-trafficking non-profit called STOP THE TRAFFIK, helps you share information on trafficking cases. The app, which uses big data to build a global picture of human trafficking, is available in India as well.

Operation Red Alert: Using big data

There are then stories of close shaves — this one of a daily wage earner and his daughter, just midway through her teens. We have changed their names to protect their identity but their story is true — and scary. Saidul thought he was providing his 16-year-old daughter Rabia a good future when he planned her marriage to an older man from Delhi. Saidul lived a hard life. Along with his wife, he worked as a daily wage labourer in a village in the Sundarbans in West Bengal. They had three daughters and two sons. Despite working 100 days a year through the government’s rural employment scheme, they found it hard to run the family.

The Aila cyclone in 2009 damaged Saidul’s village in ways from which they are yet to recover. In such trying circumstances, many families arranged their daughters’ marriages with outsiders.

So, when a neighbour came to Saidul with a marriage proposal, he thought it a good opportunity for Rabia. The neighbour said the man was a successful businessman and would look after Rabia well. Saidul thought Rabia would be happy, that she would get at least two meals a day.

Preparations were underway for Rabia’s marriage. She would see the groom for the first time on the day of the wedding.

But on June 15, 2017, a programme on trafficking in the village flashed multiple signs of danger. The programme was part of Operation Red Alert, a prevention program conceptualised by My Choices Foundation, a Hyderabad-based nonprofit, to help parents, teachers and children understand how traffickers operate.

Saidul learned about how thousands of adolescent girls go missing each year, including from his district. He heard about the mental and physical consequences of child marriage on children. He learnt that it is illegal for a girl under 18 to be married. He also discovered that traffickers target illiterate and economically poor families like his.

When My Choices started working on trafficking, they realised that girls from rural areas are most susceptible. But with over 600,000 villages in India, they needed to target their efforts at communities most at risk of trafficking.

This is where they turned to big data analytics.

My Choices partnered with Quantium, an Australian big data analytics firm, to build a tool that maps villages and communities at risk of trafficking. They gather multiple data sets from several data partners and use an analytics solution to identify where and when traffickers are likely to strike next. The tool went live in early 2016.

In Saidul’s village, the programme is run by the foundation’s local partner HASUS, an NGO based out of Sundarban.

The programme was an eyeopener for Saidul. Immediately, he went home and discussed what he had learnt and the consequences of Rabia’s impending wedding with his wife. Both agreed to call the wedding off. The next day, Saidul informed his neighbour. She pushed them to reconsider. For the next few days, she visited them repeatedly, urging them to go ahead with the wedding for Rabia’s happiness.

Finally, Saidul told her if she didn’t stop, they would inform the local police and call a helpline for trafficking. The woman eventually stopped.

Both Saidul and HASUS suspected that the woman was a broker for a trafficking ring. This was later confirmed when it was discovered she had links to other missing girls.

Today, ORA is operational in five states — West Bengal, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. By 2017, ORA had created 1,375 safe villages and educated 912,663 individuals from high-risk areas.

The team is presently working on fine-tuning the algorithm and adding more granular data to improve their predictive capabilities.

ORA also operates a pan-India helpline exclusively to deal with sex-trafficking cases, the first such initiative in India. According to ORA’s 2017 report, it had received 16,759 calls on its helpline with 3,865 unique callers, pointing them to 80 cases.

Finding Mindy: Anti-trafficking software to the rescue

Mindy went missing in the last week of July 2016 from Rynjah, a locality in Shillong in the northeastern state of Meghalaya.

A month later, on August 16, Mindy’s sister Rita received a call around 10 pm. It was Mindy, crying. She told Rita that she was being sold. The call disconnected suddenly.

The next morning, Rita visited Impulse NGO Network, a Shillong-based anti-trafficking nonprofit, to report about the call from Mindy (again, we are using pseudonyms for all the persons involved in this case to protect their identities).

The case manager at Impulse quickly sent an alert to the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit in Meghalaya through the Impulse Case Info Centre (ICIC) Software. ICIC provides a database of all trafficking cases reported to it and a communication channel for the police and NGOs working on these cases.

The NGO also organised a meeting of Mindy’s family with a police officer at Rynjah.

Later that night, Rita received another call from Mindy. She asked her to book a ticket but didn’t share any other information. Rita informed Impulse, but their attempts to call back on the number yielded no reply. The case manager immediately again alerted the local police station through the ICIC software about the call.

A few hours later, around 3 am, Mindy’s friend Adam received a text message from her asking him to book a ticket. Adam met the case manager that afternoon, who called the same number. Mindy immediately answered and asked for help.

The case manager was able to trace the location of Mindy’s phone to a residential neighbourhood in Delhi. The case manager used ICIC to alert the local superintendent of police. They also informed their partner organisations in Delhi, again using ICIC.

The police rescued Mindy the next day. Impulse provided her with counselling and training as well as helped her receive government compensation of Rs 50,000. Mindy is now married and has started a family.

In Mindy’s case, Impulse and the police used ICIC for quick communication and tracking of the case, says Hasina Kharbhih, founder of Impulse. “That is what resulted in her prompt rescue.”

ICIC is being used extensively in the northeastern states, a region that acts as a source, destination and a transit point for trafficking.

A Sikkim police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says ICIC has been quite useful to check trafficking from the northeastern states. “Once we received information that a missing child was spotted in Siliguri (in neighbouring West Bengal). We would have taken four-five hours to reach there. By then, we might have lost track of the child again. But we used the ICIC software to immediately inform people in Siliguri, who rescued the child,” he says.

The making of ICIC

Before ICIC software, Impulse stored details of trafficking cases they handled, first manually and then on Microsoft Excel. But with the number of cases increasing, the records became too hard to manage. It was particularly tough to search for cases in the database. They needed software that could store, find and match case information quickly.

Impulse’s goals were bigger than just that. They wanted to also find a way of sharing intelligence, accessing a database of wanted traffickers, and getting updates on cases in real time.

The police in every state have Anti-Human Trafficking Units. But they seldom share intelligence even though traffickers operate across state boundaries. There are also hundreds of NGOs working on trafficking across the country. Sharing case information between agencies fighting trafficking was essential.

One trafficker might be connected to cases across states. So, this tool also had to provide them with a channel of communication with other AHTUs.

Impulse also worked with several partner organisations across states, many of which didn’t have data in standard format for sharing. So the first step was to get all parties to document systematically trafficking cases.

At a gathering at IIT Guwahati in 2011, Kharbhih threw a challenge at the IITians to come up with a solution. She told them she was willing to invest a substantial part of a recent $1 million funding on it. Nothing came out of this discussion.

But soon, a startup incubated at IIT Guwahati — DFM InfoAnalytics — came forward to develop the software. The software took one year in development and another year of piloting and was officially launched on December 5, 2013.  

Impulse wanted AHTUs to enter their cases in ICIC to build a database of traffickers, victims, and trafficking routes. Details on rescue operations, rehabilitation, and prosecution would also be consolidated in this database.

To ensure confidentiality and privacy, users can only see cases they have registered or that have been referred to them. The software also has an alert feature to notify an AHTU if the database has other cases involving the same trafficker or the same victim.   

The power of a strong database

In July 2005, Impulse set up a trap and helped the Meghalaya police arrest a trafficker and book him under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. In 2012, Kharbhih was summoned to the court to testify in the case. After the accused delayed the hearing multiple times, in November 2012, Kharbhih finally got a chance to testify.

Kharbhih told the court that the person present in the court was not the accused. The court questioned why somebody else would replace the accused and asked her if she could prove he wasn’t the person who was arrested.

By this time, the ICIC software had been developed and had historical data on previous cases stored. It had the photograph of the trafficker at the time of the arrest. The Impulse team extracted and presented it in the court.

The person in the photo taken at the time of arrest and the person in the court were different.

On further probing, it was found that the real trafficker was in jail in Assam in connection with another trafficking case and had sent his brother to appear in the court. The court released the brother as he was not the accused and directed to continue the proceedings with the real accused.

“If not for the photo in our database, it would have been very difficult for us to prove that it wasn’t the real accused,” says Kharbhih. “There was a real threat that the actual trafficker would come out of Assam jail and traffic more girls.”

ICIC software also automatically generates reports and data visualisation. For this, it uses machine learning and data analysis tools to extract information from both structured and unstructured data submitted by users.

The reports make it easy to see areas with high trafficking, the profile of a typical victim, and common trafficking routes. The database also reveals other insights — that a majority of the victims are 16-year-old girls. Most suspected traffickers are men between ages 25 and 37, and that there are also a significant number of women traffickers.

“Intelligence on the hotspots, trends and routes of human trafficking help us figure out which communities are vulnerable,” says Kharbhih. “It also helps us advocate better intervention methods and laws.”

“The current deployed version of the software is mainly focusing on the data gathering phase of machine learning,” says Sanjeevan Devnath, cofounder and chief technology officer of DFM InfoAnalytics. “Once we have sufficient data for collation, we will employ ML algorithms to find patterns and predictions.”

In 2017 alone, 598 cases were registered in ICIC Software. The following year, 439 cases were registered. This year, 21 cases were registered as of April 3.

The ICIC software is today used by AHTUs in eight northeastern states. Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a part of the Central Armed Police Forces, also uses it, especially to check human trafficking on the Indo-Nepal border. The Border Security Force is also set to start using the software, says Kharbhih .

The northeastern states see several cases of trafficking between India and its neighbouring countries. Recognising the need to fast-track cross-border investigations, ICIC software also connects India with anti-trafficking units in Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Now, South Korea has shown interest in replicating the software to centralise trafficking data, says Kharbhih.

In June 2017, all the AHTUs of northeastern states and SSB reviewed the use of ICIC software. They strongly acknowledged its role in creating interlinkages among the AHTUs, and avoiding confusion and overlapping of efforts. They recommended pan-India use of the software. “Now, the Ministry of Home Affairs is reviewing ICIC software to use it as a centralised data system for all AHTUs in India,” says Kharbhih.

She would like for more NGOs to join the platform for an exchange of information. “Not many NGOs are coming forward to join since the software would track their performance. For example, if they keep a rescued survivor at a shelter home for a period longer than recommended, the system would know since it’s keeping track of when she was rescued and when she was restored with her family,” she says.

Legality of data-sharing, especially while working with foreign agencies, is another major issue that Impulse is figuring out. Training police officers on using the software is another focus area.

Meanwhile, Kharbhih and her team are working on adding more features to the software. They are working on porting it to mobile platforms, integrating it with SMS alerts, and providing multi-language support.  

“In the next version, we are planning to give a detailed picture of the trafficking routes (source/transit/destination points) and initiate a machine learning module to find the first level patterns — trends with respect to traffickers and victims,” says Devnath.

Another feature in the works is voice and facial recognition. This would aid in identifying traffickers and victims as well as help in tracking cases of re-trafficking of rescued victims.

“Our aim is to make it increasingly difficult for traffickers to operate,” says Kharbhih.


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