Using the IoT for good: Beacon of Hope project to help fight human trafficking

palentir human trafficking map 1
Credit: Palentir

Inexpensive IoT hardware, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacons could rescue human trafficking victims

With their Beacon of Hope IoT app, twin sisters and social entrepreneurs America and Penelope Lopez, are taking up the fight against one of the most revolting crimes on the planet—human trafficking.

In 2013, the United Nations reported that 20.9 million people have been pushed into forced labor and sex trades around the world. Ranked in the top three of fastest-growing crime categories, the same study reported modern slavery has become a booming $32 billion illicit trade.

Recognizing the importance of the issue, the Lopez sisters created the Beacon of Hope project. It is the latest in their string of hackathon successes that includes an anti-bullying app and a police bodycam with facial recognition. This project began at the ground zero of hackathons, the AT&T hackathon at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which draws hackers like the Kentucky Derby draws gamblers.

After Las Vegas, they entered the project in IBM’s Global Mobile Innovator Challenge and became finalists in the 4YFN (4 Years From Now) competition to empower global startup and developer communities to spread knowledge vital to building high-impact IoT apps. The Lopez sisters showcased the Beacon of Hope project at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last February.

How Beacon of Hope works

The project relies on low-cost Bluetooth beacons and Wi-Fi devices, the ubiquity of smartphones and Wi-Fi to track the locations of the human trafficking victims. In volume, the cost to set it up would be negligible, and data from Google and Palantir could be used for targeted placement along human trafficking trade routes.

Central to the design is a single fact revealed from former victims: the only time victims are away from their captors and alone is when they enter a public bathroom. In there, the victims would potentially have access to two types of devices: one a Bluetooth device prototyped with the Intel Curie IoT board and the other based on the Amazon Dash Button.

An elegant crowd-sourced solution, the Beacon of Hope project will work on a mesh network of good Samaritan’s smartphones. Bluetooth device trackers would be dispensed in women’s public bathrooms. After a victim acquired a tracker, they would squeeze it to turn it on, broadcasting its unique identifier, which volunteers’ smartphones would pick up and relay to law enforcement and victim assistance non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A rapid response might free the victim.

If an immediate rescue isn’t possible, location data—like bread crumbs—would be left behind, making a future rescue possible. Higher-resolution data of the routes and haunts used by the traffickers would be generated for a finer-grained data analysis than the Palantir map pictured above.

America and Penelope Lopez America and Penelope Lopez

America and Penelope Lopez presenting the Beacon of Hope project at 4YFN Barcelona

The Lopez sisters will also use the Amazon Dash button as a Button of Hope. Originally designed for reordering products, it has a microcontroller and a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio with an AAA battery that is programmed to do just one thing: send a unique identifier over the network to Amazon to order staples such as laundry detergent. Installed in a public restroom, the button would be repurposed to send a signal over the local Wi-Fi network to law enforcement that a victim has temporary sanctuary at a known location.  

The Button of Hope was added to the system because America and Penelope’s aunt, who escaped from modern slavery by crawling out a bathroom window, told them she frequently saw stickers on the walls of public restrooms that listed a telephone number and internet site that a victim could use to report her enslavement. The aunt said the stickers made her feel helpless because she never had access to a phone or computer.

Pilot program

As a result of IBM’s sponsorship, the city of Bangalore has offered to pilot the Beacon of Hope project. But the Lopez sisters want to start in California because Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco have been ranked among the top 10 cities for frequency of human trafficking. The women are engaging with local law enforcement anti-trafficking teams in those three cities to select the right one for a pilot project. They are most interested in piloting the project near their home in LA County, which is composed of 88 cities that have the largest concentration of trafficking.

America and Penelope grew up in the projects of the Boyle Heights in East LA and attended Lincoln High School. America attends Pasadena City College, and Penelope is a student at Cal State LA focusing on computer information systems.

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