Three undergraduates teamed up to take on a major global challenge — the fight against modern-day slavery. One of the tools they developed will help consumers take on the challenge, as well, just ahead of the 2013 holiday shopping season.
It has been almost 150 years since slavery was outlawed in the United States, but it still exists in a new form. The U.S. Department of State estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Globally, an estimated 27 million men, women, and children are forced into labor or sex slavery or both — almost seven times more slaves than were present before the outbreak of the Civil War.
While the problem may seem too big for college students to tackle, Wes Williams of Roanoke, Va.; Nicholas Montgomery of South Riding, Va.; and Kwamina Orleans-Pobee of Annandale, Va., said they are undeterred by the task.
“The picture people have of slavery is so different from what modern-day slavery really is — that people are not conscious about it. And even if they do see it, they are not necessary aware of what they are seeing,” said Orleans-Pobee, a junior triple majoring in computer science, philosophy, and physics. “There has to be more awareness.”
The team developed technological tools to help bridge that awareness gap and empower victims and those concerned about the issue after winning first and second place in a Challenge Slavery contest organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and partnering agencies.
Their first-place idea, called AboliShop, is a Web browser extension that allows consumers to see if the items in their online shopping carts are at risk for using forced or exploitative behavior in their manufacturing or distribution. Items are assigned a grade based on an existing database developed by the anti-trafficking agency, Not for Sale.
While the database already existed, the team thought it could be even more powerful. “It needed to be as easy as possible,” said Montgomery, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. “With the browser extension, it’s just one click and someone can get that information. If it requires too much research and energy to access the database, the number of people who are actually going to use it goes down very quickly.”
The team wants to push AboliShop out for public use ahead of Black Friday 2013 — the official start to the busy holiday shopping season.
“Money talks,” said Williams, a senior majoring in applied economic management. “When consumers are given the choice, we think they will make the right decision, which will push companies to reform.”
The team also earned second place in the USAID contest. Mxit is the largest social network on the African continent and is available on basic feature phones, making it accessible for a large part of the African market share. The students’ concept is to build a hotline into Mxit’s existing platform, where users would be able to send instant messages anonymously if they are trafficking victims or witnesses of possible trafficking.
In January 2014, Williams will travel to South Africa to meet with anti-trafficking advocates. His goal in meeting people on the ground is to create connections and push the project forward.
“Mxit was founded in South Africa and the country has a pretty robust trafficking circuit,” he said. The U.S. Department of State ranks the country a Tier 2 country, meaning the country does not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s standards but it is a making an effort to do so. The country was on a Tier 2 Watch List a few years ago. “With safety preparations for the World Cup in 2010, South Africa uncovered a lot of trafficking issues. Beyond that, we want to target South Africa because of the prevalent use of Mxit and other technology infrastructure that makes our concept useful and sustainable there.”
Williams is getting most of his flight covered with an overbooking voucher he received returning to the U.S. from an education abroad trip through a University Honors program, the Presidential Global Scholars. It was on that trip that he developed a passion to fight modern-day slavery while working on a group research paper on sex trafficking in Europe.
“The first-hand experience was what made me willing to invest long-term energy into it,” Williams said. That energy led to the recruitment of Montgomery and Orleans-Pobee to submit ideas to the USAID competition. “Without them being on the project, it wouldn’t have gotten done.”
AboliShop is a Web browser extension. When installed, the extension makes it easy to see if items in a customer’s virtual shopping cart are at risk for child or forced labor in the making or distribution of the goods.
The AboliShop team will release information on how to download the browser extension as soon as it is ready for public use through its Twitter page.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) invited students Wes Williams, Kawmina Orleans-Pobee, and Nicholas Montgomery to the White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking in April 2013 to discuss their winning concepts with USAID staff and partner organizations.
Participation in the Presidential Global Scholars program and the proddings of fellow Honors student Austin Larrowe peaked Wes Williams’ passion for fighting human trafficking and slavery.
While on the education abroad experience for University Honors students, Williams did a group research paper with four other students on sex trafficking in Europe. “I’ve been getting every human trafficking research paper I can get my hands on ever since,” he said.
Almost 30 University Honors students will participate in the third year of the Presidential Global Scholars Program, traveling during spring 2014. The theme for 2014 is “Transitions and Transformations.”
Students will maintain blogs throughout the experience.
During the spring 2013 semester, 28 University Honors students became the second cohort in the Presidential Global Scholars program. The program uses interdisciplinary, hands-on learning experiences to enable students to discover new cultures and become a global citizen.