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In a world turning increasingly digital, the rise of online prostitution is presenting new challenges for both the women offering their services, and the organisations that offer help and support.

Scharlaken Koord, a foundation that supports prostitutes in Amsterdam, Flevoland and
Haarlem, is utilising data analysis techniques used by police and intelligence agencies to address these challenges. Using an i2 solution developed by DataExpert, they have been able
to reduce manpower, increase the quality of their data, expand to serve more cities, and
improve their outreach strategy to ultimately help many more people.

“We empower sex workers to take control of their lives by offering social support.”
- Marijn Goodijk explains, who is the project leader of digital support at Scharlaken Koord.

The number of brothels in the Netherlands continues to decrease due to sex workers increasingly offering their services online. This transition means that Scharlaken Koord,
has found it increasingly difficult in recent years to help prostitutes who find themselves
exploited and in danger.

“Prostitution seems easy money, but along the line, sex workers are often confronted with sexual, physical, and psychological violence and abuse.”

Red Light District in Amsterdam with statistics overlaid.

Manual scanning of sex websites

In 2016, Goodijk researched the scale of internet prostitution.

“The results were shocking. We ended up with 8,500 unique telephone numbers per day, and we did not know how many people were behind this.”

This led Goodjik to implement a pilot scheme to try and reach online sex workers and build a database of their contact information.

“We started scanning the two largest Dutch sex websites twice a week. Manually, we looked up information about online prostitutes, such as name, age, gender, services, location, telephone number, availability, price, and level of activity. We also examined advertisements for signs of human trafficking”.

All this data had to be manually entered into a spreadsheet which Scharlaken Koord then used to send out text messages offering their support services. They received a large number of responses, especially from people who wanted help leaving the industry.

Woman on the phone looking at a computer monitor.

Scaling up

Scharlaken Koord’s process was working, however, it was costing far too much time to scale to the level they were striving for. “It took too long; every scan took four hours. Moreover, we were missing the people who were not advertising on the days of our scans and could not draw proper conclusions from the data” said Goodijk.

“We wanted to intensify online scanning, but we wanted it automated.”

From the police, with whom Scharlaken Koord cooperates, Goodijk was introduced to DataExpert.

“Our contact advised us to first brainstorm with DataExpert, an i2 partner and specialist in data analytics. During the first conversation, it became clear DataExpert understood the problems we had and were capable of implementing a solution.”

DataExpert worked with Scharlaken Koord to develop a bespoke solution to automate their data collection. Using specialised web crawling software in combination with i2® Analyst’s Notebook® and i2® iBase, the data from the targeted websites were imported with just a few clicks, saving
countless hours of manpower.

From weeks to seconds

A process that took four hours to conduct manually is now completed in seconds. In addition, scanning now takes place five days a week and covers more areas. Amsterdam, for example,
was previously too large and is now included. Aggregating the data has also been reduced to just seconds, compared to the three weeks it used to take.

Scharlaken Koord’s team can now search the data with ease and create more tailored approaches for their outreach strategy. The searches also help shine a light on suspicious activity that needs investigating.

Goodijk says: “If someone younger than 25 years is asking no more than 50 euros per hour, it could be a sign of human trafficking.”

Identifying high-risk cases

Using queries makes it easy for Scharlaken Koord to further analyse data with i2® Analyst’s Notebook®. Goodijk:

“With a query, you can reduce the number of persons from several thousand to around ten. You can further expand these profiles in an analysis. You can see, for example, that one person is linked to three telephone numbers or connections to other persons.”

In high-risk cases, such as potential abuse, the analysis results are shared with the police or investigation services. Scharlaken Koord also uses the information to give municipalities insight into the nature and size of prostitution in their area. Goodijk:

“With the new system, this is much easier than it used to be. It makes us less dependable on subsidies from government and industry.”

A brighter future

DataExpert helped Scharlaken Koord to configure the web crawler, database, and analysis tool, using i2 components into one powerful solution. Goodijk is pleased with what has been achieved:

“I am still amazed by the enthusiasm with which DataExpert tackled the entire project. They are experts in their field, and obviously have more clients with similar questions as us. Not only the
police, but also banks and insurance agencies who face organised crime such as fraud”.

It took Scharlaken Koord only six weeks to switch to the new methodology and the expectations are high. In the previous year, a quarter of the people Scharlaken Koord contacted got in touch after receiving a text message. With the new system in place not only can Scharlaken Koord reach more people, they can also tailor their messages which they believe will increase response rates and therefore help more people.

With local police and investigation services using the same i2 software, they are exploring how they can improve collaboration to optimise the information stream by directly sharing information.

Girl at the beach at sunset.

National expansion

Such has been the success of this model, that Scharlaken Koord is now conducting
web crawls for similar organisations across the Netherlands. “In this way, we build an
extensive network and can chart prostitution nationally”.

Thanks to the data analytics solutions delivered by DataExpert and i2, Scharlaken
Koord is now able to help sex workers across the entire country.

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