Microsoft Hopes Apps Can Help Fight Trafficking

During an annual anti-human trafficking meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, representatives from six countries—Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam—credited arrests and prosecutions with being the best tools for stopping perpetrators.

But in an interview between panel discussions at the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel & Residence on the Chroy Changva peninsula, a Microsoft executive said the technology giant had a more novel approach.

Stefan Sjostrom, vice president of Microsoft’s public sector in Asia, said mobile phone applications could motivate people to take a more active role in combating human trafficking in the region.

“The appetite to deal with [trafficking] is very strong,” he said. “And I think a big, big opportunity across Southeast Asia…is the notion of tapping the intrinsic motivation of the citizens to participate in helping drive this issue.”

Mr. Sjostrom said Microsoft had developed software on Azure, its cloud computing platform, that it wants to provide for free to local developers, who in turn can work with NGOs to produce apps aimed at fighting trafficking.

To demonstrate his point, Mr. Sjostrom pulled out a Windows smartphone and fired up an app called Guardian.

Released in India in 2013, the app was designed following a high-profile gang rape in New Delhi the previous year. Users can allow their friends or families to track their movements in real time. If the user gets in trouble, an “SOS” button can be tapped, sending an alert to police or hospitals.

Mr. Sjostrom said he hoped that by providing similar software to Cambodian developers, they could build their own apps tailored to the country’s specific needs.

“The police may not be able to respond or have little interest to respond, but just imagine tapping into your social networks or just good citizens that are in the neighborhood to say there is an issue,” he said.

Lonh Samdy, a computer programmer and technology specialist in Phnom Penh, said he believed local developers would jump at the opportunity, as long as they could also develop apps for Google Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems.

“Since Windows platform is not popular right now, I’m not sure our developers are willing to join the project,” he said by telephone, estimating that there were about 500 professional app developers in Cambodia.

Despite Mr. Sjostrom’s enthusiasm, Steve Morrish, the head of anti-trafficking NGO Sisha, which works with local law enforcement, said an app that allowed victims to call for help would be useless unless someone was willing to respond.

“In concept, it is a fantastic idea,” he said. “From an action point of view, it would be very difficult and I wouldn’t expect to see that happen in Cambodia with the current police force.”

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