How big data and philanthropy are taking on child exploitation

Thu, 6 Apr 2023

Social impact drives many philanthropic endeavors, but perhaps the most profoundly challenging of all to tackle is the prevention of childhood sexual abuse. The International Centre For Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) Australia has announced that the first recipient of its Child Protection Fund (CPF) is a leading UK firm specialising in data-led disruption of financial transactions associated with this heinous and rapidly growing crime.  

Tiphanie Au, who heads up the incubator-style fund, says:

“All social problems are hard, but when children are involved, it pulls on the heart.”

“Children are so vulnerable and trauma from childhood abuse has terribly devastating and long-lasting impacts on people’s lives.” 

The Australian RedFlag Accelerator CSE Portal is the pilot put forward by RedCompass Labs. It’s an online platform in which localised big data analysis and cutting-edge typologies are provided to Australian financial institutions. The intent is to enhance bank processes to better detect and report on transactions in relation to these crimes.  

RedCompass Labs is collaborating with three of the “big 4” banks in Australia, including NAB, along with one other institution, to optimise the portal’s usability in the system here. The idea is to make it scalable across all financial institutions in the country and the ultimate vision is to roll it out across the Asia-Pacific region.

“Australia could be at the forefront of helping to move forward in a meaningful way to reduce child sexual exploitation facilitated online,” says Tiphanie. 

Financial institutions currently have a range of analytic tools in place, but payments of this type can be notoriously difficult to detect because offenders take multiple steps to hide their actions. There is clearly much more to be done.

“The statistics are horrendous. The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received more than 21 million reports of child sexual abuse material in 2020 alone.”

“While that centre is based in the US, 93% of the reports to the Cybertip line are from outside the US, so this is a shared global issue,” says Tiphanie. 

“Child exploitation is very confronting and until I began working in the field, I was not aware of the scale of the problem. Now it’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me go above and beyond every day in this role.” 

The scale across multiple territories presents a raft of challenges, including silos in data but also operations, which leads to limitations between banks working together. This space is exactly where ICMEC Australia, a relatively new and neutral NFP, becomes the vital connecting glue. “We provide catalytic funding to de-risk a pilot that showcases to banks that this project or product is needed and valuable. But it has to fit within existing bank systems so that we’re not creating another silo.  

“We then combine it with non-financial support, in terms of the promotion of collaboration and product adaptation so it really is impactful. Instead of waiting for each individual bank to purchase and implement these innovative products on its own, this will be more scalable,” says Tiphanie. 

“This is work that no single bank would do on its own, so that’s the value-add that ICMEC Australia brings – filling the gaps in the ecosystem.”

“These issues can’t be solved by a single player. We’ve got to work collaboratively and cohesively to drive change. It’s not just a legal issue, for example – we can’t arrest our way out of this. It needs to be a multi-pronged approach from crime detection to prevention.” 

Before joining ICMEC Australia, Tiphanie worked in the NSW public sector specialising in outcomes-focused impact investing for social policy in areas such as homelessness, out-of-home care, youth unemployment and recidivism. “My background is an interdisciplinary mix of law, finance and economics, with my ethos being to drive positive change with measurable impacts.” 

Tiphanie sits on Philanthropy Australia’s New Gen Committee and is recognised internationally for her outcomes-focused approach. She has been appointed one of 15 Government Outcomes Lab Visiting Fellows of Practice at Oxford University for 2023, a leading group of practitioners from the public, voluntary and private sectors whose insights help the lab to develop the latest best practices in process and engagement.  

She applies this experience to administering the Child Protection Fund. Another value-add of the NFP is its ability to draw together a rich cross-section of industry experts, academics and data specialists to apply due diligence and rigour to applications. “That myriad perspectives, intelligence and stakeholder inputs provide a very well-informed recommendation on which proposals we take to our board.” ICMEC Australia’s funding strategies include grants, impact investing and, the approach with RedCompass Labs, venture philanthropy. 

For many New Gens like herself, Tiphanie says there’s an increasing appreciation of leveraging big data to see an issue in a more holistic picture, then using that to make informed decisions, whether it’s for giving or impact investing. Tiphanie has high hopes “there will be opportunities to pilot more innovative funding models and potentially opportunities to explore co-funding partnerships as well”. 

Due to the nature of ICMEC Australia’s work, survivors sometimes see the organisation as a safe space to share stories of childhood sexual abuse or can be triggered by its work. As a result, Tiphanie and the rest of ICMEC Australia team have undergone trauma-informed training so they can respond appropriately. The organisation has also extended the training opportunity to their sector partners. ICMEC Australia also presents other intel-sharing and educational events – “by coming together, there’s a better sense of what is needed”. 

“You can’t help but be affected by the stories. They are a big motivator. Unfortunately, the past has happened, but we stand by survivors and acknowledge their bravery, then focus everything we’ve got on disrupting these crimes,” she says. 

“I feel very passionate about going beyond the individual projects to tackle this dreadful issue from a system-level perspective. We may not solve it, but incremental changes add up.”