Recently, I attended a hackathon in London and pitched blockchain for an app that can help to track down missing children. In this essay, I aim to explore how smart technology can be utilised in social aid, with a focus on child identification.
Our team designed a prototype app called ‘Found Already’ at AngelHack. Found Already uses a combination of smart technology and IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence (AI) system to help reunite children separated from their families. Following a natural disaster, for example, families can share their child’s details, and the program will match their child’s photo with images of children who have been rescued.
I’m far from alone in searching for technology solutions to humanitarian crises. The World Identity Network (WIN), ID2020 and the United Nations (UN) are just a few of the groups that have made the headlines by exploring the use of blockchain in social aid. The UN and WIN launched a challenge to find ways of using blockchain to combat child sex trafficking in Moldova; New York-based technology company ConsenSys was announced as the winner in March. And IBM has launched the ‘Call for Code’ initiative in a quest to find technological ways to prepare for disasters around the world.
Technology isn’t a silver bullet,but it can help to support the wider goal of aiding individuals faced with difficult or dangerous circumstances. And digital identity can be paramount, particularly in determining the future of a child’s life after a natural disaster, abduction or, as recently highlighted in the United States and Europe, immigration separation.
In 2016, the non-profit group Effect.org invited a number of us techheads from Google and the cloud computing companies Salesforce and VMware on a research trip to Nepal and India. The aim of the trip was to better understand the global sex trafficking epidemic. We visited local orphanages and schools, met with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in prevention, response and rehabilitation, and took part in a hackathon aimed at helping the NGOs (who, it has to be said, were far more intelligently able than our presumptuous group of well-meaning yet clueless Westerners).
What we learned is that education and identity are everything in regions where every four minutes, an underage child is kidnapped, bound, stripped of their virginity and forced into a life of prostitution. Children regularly disappear into an underworld that feeds off a vicious poverty cycle. This is not a situation we can ignorantly claim to fix, tangled up as it is with factors like economic performance, criminal justice law, government policy and so forth. But we can help to disrupt a system of injustice.
Birth registration is a critical first step towards safeguarding individual rights and providing every child with access to services in climates of violence or natural disaster. According to the UN, fewer than half of all children under 5 years of age in sub-Saharan Africa have had their births registered. The lack of information on children in existing databases limits what can be done to prevent and respond to situations of separation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) points out that as of December 2017, the number of families separated by conflict, violence and natural disaster is at a five year high. New cases of relatives contacting the organization to look for loved ones increased by almost 90% over the period of 2012–16. In 2017 alone, 18,000 missing person cases were opened at the ICRC. This shows the scale of the problem and indicates that if nothing is done, global family separation will continue to rise.
Why does blockchain matter? The unchangeable nature of blockchain means that it is practically impossible to alter records, and at the same time it provides a high degree of transparency, making it easy to trace a child’s digital history. And blockchain is incredibly quick – one of the reasons why it is so appealing to the financial trading market. All of this means that organisations such as the UN or the child-protection charity New Light in Kolkata, India, could theoretically scale up more easily, collaborate with other databases without undue worries about the veracity of the information, and identify and locate children faster and more accurately.
For the concept of Found Already, my hackathon team explored the idea of blending mainstream visual recognition technologies and text messaging (SMS) with a private blockchain database, Hyperledger Fabric. We chose the scenario of children being separated from their families after a natural disaster in Indonesia, a nation with poor infrastructure and scant resources that also has a very high risk of earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
Our scenario presumed that families living in areas at high risk of a natural disaster would be proactively identified and recorded in a database on nodes and chains. In the event of a child being separated from their family during a disaster, the process would be as follows:
Parent texts relief agency
Agency chatbot requests information, such as child’s name, village, date of birth and other helpful information, with a photo if possible
Photo is received and stored
Details are matched against any children already saved
Chatbot responds to parent with next steps
With blockchain, we are still left with the obvious problem of intent. Blockchain can speed things up and lock data so that it cannot be tampered with, but it cannot solve the problem of initial data being entered either accidentally or deliberately false. In the case of AI, the ‘truth’ that a computer determines is the truth that it has been trained by a human to identify. So, as IBM demonstrated, an AI sensor will detect an apple when shown an orange if it is shown an orange repeatedly and consistently told that it is an apple.
What this means is that a child could have an airtight identification record that is not necessarily true. People who are not a child’s real guardians could intentionally create a falsified record for the child. The nature of the blockchain means that the record is immutable, and the truth of the record is determined by AI consensus that is open to manipulation – so could we see a situation whereby false identities can be created and never reversed?
Historically, technology has been used to the detriment of vulnerable children. Traffickers use social media, websites and anonymizing apps and networks to contact and recruit their victims, often through deceptive or coercive messages. Unless carefully controlled, the danger exists that AI and blockchain could be manipulated to suit traffickers’ needs.
It’s my opinion that blockchain needs more time before it can be of better use than current NGO databases, but that shouldn’t deter efforts to integrate blockchain into humanitarian aid. Yet when doing so, we must proceed with caution and self-awareness: with sophisticated technology comes great responsibility. We must not be blinded by the cult of blockchain into thinking it can only be used for good, thus overlooking the many other angles of the technology.
Around the world, people are working to find creative solutions to problems of child identification. If we can improve identification systems, we can poke holes in the underworld web of global human exploitation and create positive change. And in the near future, we can help families in vulnerable situations.
Found Already co-won the IBM Call for Code challenge at AngelHack London. Fellow teammates – and the real brains behind the operation – were Andrew Whitehouse, Justin Grierson Van Kaul and Viv. Teammates on the 2016 Finding Bulu hackathon project in Nepal were Professor Shannon Peterson, Brian Barnhart of Google, Urmi Basu of New Light Kolkata and Effect.org.
- Stellamarie Hall
Exploratory work covered in this article is conceptual and intended to progress conversation, and is not to be seen as extensive research or scholarly work.
About the author: Stella is a technology marketer and a curious head. She has a background in cloud computing and, more recently, in blockchain. She lives between London and San Francisco and enjoys running, gin and tonics and speaking terrible French.
Solving a Global Identity Crisis– MIT Technology Review
Unconfirmed Ep 017– The UN World Food Programme’s Blockchain-Based Food Vouchers for Syrian Refugees, with Robert Opp
United Nations– Development of Goal 16
Consensys & Moldova Blockchain Human Trafficking Project Launch Plans to Save Children