Reaching Those Beyond Big Data

Editor’s Note: Opening up the Stories to Action edition is Panthea Lee’s @panthealee moving story about a human trafficking outreach campaign that her company, Reboot, designed for Safe Horizon.  In David Brook’s recent NYT column, What Data Can’t Do, he lists several things that big data is unable to accomplish. After reading the notes to Panthea’s talk below, we’d all agree that big data also leaves out people who live”off the grid.”

As Panthea tells her story about Fatou (pseudonym), a person who has been trafficked, we learn that many of the services we use to make our lives easier, like Google Maps or Hop Stop, are also used by human traffickers to maintain dominance and power over people they are controlling. Panthea shares the early prototypes in Reboot’s design and how they decided to create a campaign that would take place at cash checking shops. 

Below, Panthea shares her notes to the talk that she gave at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. You can also view the video version of her talk


We’ve made great strides in data-driven policymaking, open government, and civic technology –– many of the folks in this room have made significant contributions in these domains. But, as we know, many people, even here in New York City, still live “off the grid”––and the issues of access go beyond “digital divide”.

As a designer working on governance and development issues––fields where economists regularly eat anthropologists for lunch––this is something I think a lot about.

In the era of Big Data, as we become increasingly reliant on capital-d Data, I wonder what might exist in the negative space? Who are we not capturing in our datasets? And how might we reach them?


A few months ago, I met a young woman from Benin who I will call Fatou (not her real name). Fatou had been adopted by an American preacher on mission in Benin, and brought to the United States. She and her family were overjoyed at her good fortune.

Fatou was pleased, she felt taken care of with her new “mother” and “father” in Queens. They started her on English lessons to help her adjust to the US and to allow her to enroll in school, a longtime dream.

But even from the outset, some things seemed strange to her.

Whenever they left the house, “to keep her safe”, her mother always held her by the wrist, keeping a firm grip. She wasn’t allowed any possessions beyond clothing. Her belongings were regularly searched for any material she kept, particularly information (pamphlets, papers). If found, they were confiscated. She worked long hours at a school the family owned. She was never herself enrolled in school, as promised, and when she inquired about her education, she was told to stop being ungrateful.

At first, Fatou thought these were just US customs. But then things got worse.

The preacher started doing “bad things” to her at night, acts she still struggles to talk about today. Fatou’s passport was taken from her “for safekeeping”. Once her visa expired, the preacher refused to apply for another, making her an undocumented alien. A class of person, she was told, the US government doesn’t look kindly upon.

Fatou was a victim of human trafficking. And she’s not alone: there are an estimated 300,000 to one million trafficked persons in the US. New York City itself is a trafficking hub.

Throughout her trafficking ordeal, Fatou tried to “get out” several times, but she was stuck, she was scared. She lacked the information she needed about what her rights were, whether this was common practice in the US, and, as an undocumented person, who could she turn to for help. After her trust had been betrayed, could she trust someone again?

So the question for our organization, working with an incredible victims’ assistance agency in New York City, was: how do we reach people like Fatou?

The answers are not always so clear. The same tools we use to make our world smaller and keep those dear to us closer at all times can actually make life harder for people like Fatou.

We use services like HopStop or Google Maps to navigate, travel, and show up at meetings on time. Fatou’s traffickers used them to make sure she was home from work at exactly the time she was supposed to be. In Fatou’s case, rather than enabling, these tools entrapped.


We’re accustomed to cheap communication around the world, connecting with loved ones has never been easier. For Fatou, they were a source of stress. Her family in Benin wondered why she was so reluctant to call. “It’s not expensive,” they’d say. “We want to see you!” But Fatou knew her family would be beside themselves if they knew what had happened to their daughter. Thus, she made excuses and talked to them infrequently. Despite the ease of connection in the modern day, she wanted instead to disconnect.

And while many of us work to enhance and streamline civic service delivery––standardizing data formats and making sure they are accessible across platforms––the thought of linked data was terrifying to Fatou. Every interaction with a formal institution was a risk. As an undocumented person, Fatou was terrified that one look at her papers, any of her papers, would mean jail or another unknown fate. Thus, whether it was not seeing a doctor when she got sick, or crossing the street when she saw a police officer, Fatou was constantly trying to escape from the open, connected, efficient world many of us are trying to build.

To reach victims like Fatou, we needed a different approach. We needed something  accessible, trusted, attractive, and intuitive.

The solution: check cashing shops.


Why check cashing shops? The story and process of how we arrived at this solution is long––we prototyped and tested many options––but for people like Fatou, the reasons are straightforward.

They are accessible. Check cashing shops are one of the very few places we found that trafficked persons are allowed to go on their own, even those with tightly controlled movements. Traffickers recognize they must let their victims send money home to their families or to pay their debts.

They are trusted. Many check cashing shops are community hubs for those they serve. People gather there, they hang out. These are people formal financial institutions rarely give much thought about, and sometimes, rude bank tellers make that clear. At check cashing shops, they receive a warm reception and friendly service.

So that was the platform, but what about the tool?

It needed to be appropriate. Many outreach materials for trafficked persons contain unhelpful imagery of chains and battered women. As one woman told us: “My life is sad enough, I don’t want sad images. I want words. Tell me the facts.”


It also need to be relevant. We found that many trafficked persons often don’t know what the term “trafficking” means. Even if they do, many don’t relate to it––trafficking is something that happens to other people,  “stupid people”.


In spending more time with them and testing concepts and language, often in Mad Libs style, we figured out what would register: passports. Most trafficked persons had had their passports confiscated, as a means of control. Here was something they wanted back, more than “getting out of trafficking”.


As humans, we are biased toward looking for information in places where information is quick to find and easy to work with––these days, that largely means digital and online. Or we tend to get information from familiar sources and people. But, I’d ask us to consider who we miss in the process.

Many of us are working hard to build a more open, connected, and efficient world, but I hope we don’t lose sight of those like Fatou who will never be captured in our datasets.



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