Prostitution and human trafficking are major problems throughout the world. And they’re certainly not new problems. Prostitution is often called “the oldest profession” for a reason. Are there any innovations that can help solve this problem, to stop the exploitation of sex workers and the home-wrecking and life-wrecking sin of those who pay for them? A team at a hackathon developed a chatbot to do exactly that.
In 2019, Sam* served in a leadership role with FaithTech and used that year’s #HACK event to make an impact on the community. FaithTech had previously seen success with their “How To Kill Yourself” project that had been developed at a previous #HACK event – using SEO to help people looking for ways to kill themselves get help instead of actual suicide instructions. Then they asked the question: What are other forms of brokenness in our communities that we can take on in this way? After discussion, they settled on the answer: sex trafficking.
Sam and Roger, an attorney from Washington D.C., began to work on the project. They bought a domain related to buying sex. A lot of people were searching for prostitutes online and they wanted to be able to talk to those people. When someone went to the website looking to buy sex, they were met with information about the harmful nature of prostitution and the ability to talk to someone about it.
They got a Google Grant to pay for some ads to drive traffic to the website. But they quickly realized a problem. Most of the people who found and paid for prostitutes online would never end up at the website Sam and Roger were running.
“Getting traffic is great, but that is only for people who are searching for the first time,” Sam says. “Most of the time, the way that people buy sex online is not through Google searching. It’s through online listings.”
For a while, people could search for and hire escorts on the biggest online classified sites. Then websites like Craigslist and Kijiji cracked down and banned all posts related to prostitution. But there are still a lot of smaller classified sites that allow those types of ads, and people use them to pay for sex workers.
Going where the people are
If these online classified websites are where people go to find prostitutes online, then that’s where the team needed to be able to meet them. But how?
After some strategic discussions, they decided to try a chatbot. As a test, the team created a new phone number and posted two listings on the website. One typical listing said:
If you’re looking to buy sex, there are three things you need to know first. Contact us and we’ll tell you.
“We decided not to go the deceptive route and pretend to be an escort,” Sam says. “We decided to just say there’s something they should know.”
The listings provided a phone number to text for more information. Within one week, fifty people responded to the two ads.
“That opened the door for us to start having a conversation with the person,” Sam says. “We said things like, ‘Why are you doing this? Do you know about the health risks or the legal risks? What is it that you’re trying to do with your goals in life? Are you planning to get married one day? If so, how do you think this will fit in with that plan?”
In the beginning, the team did manual responses. Whenever someone texted the number from the classified ads, Sam or Roger would respond. While having those conversations, they learned what got a response, what people were open to, and used those conversations to craft future automation.
From there, the team wrote out scripts that a chatbot could use to respond to questions someone would ask. But they needed some help. This wasn’t a project that Sam and Roger could do alone, so they took it to Indigitous #HACK.
A hackathon brings progress
Though it wasn’t related to one of the featured challenges of the hackathon, the hosts of that #HACK event allowed time for attendees to pitch projects. Roger used that opportunity to talk about their project, their chatbot, and their vision for helping people turn away from the sinful and hurtful practice of prostitution. A few people were inspired and a team formed around the project.
“Four people signed up and started working with us. Within that weekend of #HACK, they added additional features to the chatbot that probably would have taken us a whole year,” Sam says.
While the chatbot is an important way of automating and scaling responses to the ads, it’s not the main goal. No matter how well it’s designed, scripted, and programmed, a chatbot can never do as good of a job in having these types of personal conversations as a real person.
“What we wanted was the chatbot to be the first layer of screening. Once they hit the point where the chatbot isn’t able to answer, we would seamlessly notify a human on the other end and the human can jump in and continue the conversation where it left off,” Sam says.
After the hackathon ended, the team was inspired by the project and its ability to make an impact. Most of the volunteers who worked on the project continued to join weekly meetings to work on the project – meetings that continue to this day.
The team is now partnering with some ministries that help them by recruiting volunteers to be those human responders at the other end of the chatbot. With the help of those ministries, they are now launching more ads to increase their reach. The team hopes to get more volunteers who can help respond to messages.
“The beauty of the chatbot is that we can scale it up as much as we want. Right now we’re running ads in three cities. We could easily post a listing in every major city in the U.S. and get back 1,000 responses. We just need more people to talk to these men,” Sam says.
Editor’s note: Names in this article were changed for security reasons.