THE BLOG
06/28/2013 06:18 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2013

Save the world from your desk

We have become avid consumers of the most precious commodity: data. We spend 58 minutes a day browsing our mobile phones. We buy from the web, we communicate with texts, we have online 'identities' on social media. And as we consume data, we generate our very own digital footprint: a trail of numbers, transactions, usernames, logins, which in the mobile era define who we are. This is why I am convinced that we are living at a time when it's no longer follow the money, it's follow the data.

My friend Barry knows that well. He's a top manager at one of the biggest US banks. His biggest achievement? Helping to dismantle an entire network of human trafficking. How? Following the data. Barry noticed something unusual when looking over the credit card data of his clients. A lot of credit card holders would pay a chain of nail salons in New York between 11pm and 5 am and never paying less than 100 dollars. Bizarre time and price for a manicure, even by New York standards! In fact Barry not only uncovered a prostitution network, he exposed an organization where young women and girls were trafficked from outside the US: modern-day slavery. And how did Barry get to the traffickers? Following their digital trail.

I have another friend who's familiar with such a concept. Her name is Martina Vandenberg. She is an extraordinary lawyer who is suing human traffickers on behalf of their victims. Breaking new legal ground and using digital data as evidence, Martina demonstrates that people who have been enslaved have worked incredible amount of hours a day without ever being paid. Martina always gets the victims financial compensation for their years in slavery. It's the data that incriminates.

Data, I believe, can also be a great story teller. Human beings need stories to make sense of the world. And when those stories are backed by data, they go miles ahead. Take the Thomson Reuters Foundation latest perception polls. We asked gender specialists the question: "what are the most dangerous countries for women to live in?" Our first poll revealed that India was the fourth most dangerous country for women to live in. And in our follow up poll, India dropped even lower, ranking as the "worst of the G20 countries." The results made big headlines across India and all over the world, but in India, the activists used the polls to demand change. By crunching data and creating information, we gave civil society a tool to speak up and demand action.

Last April in New York, my friend Barry shared his know-how at a roundtable discussion I co-hosted with Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney. Sitting with us at the table were representatives from law enforcement agencies and some of the world's leading financial institutions: Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, TD Bank of Canada, Barclays and American Express and Western Union. The discussion moved a mile a minute, and within a few hours, the banks agreed to work with law enforcement agencies to fight human trafficking. How? By sharing their data.

The world is changing. New crimes, new forms of injustice, and new ways to oppress. And in this new world, the philanthropic movement has to adapt quickly to the new reality. In order to fight back, it also needs to enlist a new set of heroes from very unlikely places: banks, law firms, and media organizations. We need lawyers, we need banks and credit card companies, we need reporters who know how to write a story that moves, we need good-guys to hack the hackers, we need mobile-technologists, we need data-analysts. We need all the people who have understood it's no longer follow the money- it's follow the data.

And you, the unlikely superheroes of the world, we need your help. Come on. Suit up. Save the world from your desk. This is your chance.

Watch my corresponding TEDx talk on Sex, Crime, and Unlikely Heroes.

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