Kerri Swindells: How digital technology is saving the lives of sex workers

National Ugly Mugs is showing small charities how they can have a dramatic impact by embracing digital technology

Kerri Swindells
Kerri Swindells

There are an estimated 72,000 sex workers in the UK. The stigma surrounding their work and laws that criminalise some aspects of it makes them less likely to access support or police protection, and this makes them vulnerable to being targeted by dangerous people. A recent survey of sex workers found that 49 per cent were concerned for their safety.

Since 1990, 181 sex workers have been murdered in the UK. As a group, they face violence on a regular basis. National Ugly Mugs was set up in 2012 as a pilot project to address this serious concern. It was based on a method used in the 1980s by Australian sex workers, who shared handwritten notes about people (or "ugly mugs") who should be avoided.

NUM formalised this approach using technology, and sex workers across the UK now benefit from shared safety information. Instead of handwritten notes, NUM uses digital alerts in response to reported incidents (more than 3,500 have been reported to date), with warnings being sent to sex workers by text and email to help them avoid dangerous people and situations.

The work of NUM has continued to develop through technology, with additional online safety features and reporting pathways to police intelligence systems helping the police to identify, arrest and convict people who pose risks, not just to sex workers, but to the whole community.

This technology is allowing sex workers to access vital lifesaving alerts and report incidents while protecting their anonymity and without risking further stigma and criminalisation.

Digital technology is crucial in allowing a small charity such as NUM (a team of seven) to support about 4,500 sex workers and more than 600 front-line support workers nationally. We couldn’t have such an incredible reach or make such a significant impact without it.

The technology we use is relatively simple, but hugely effective. NUM manages about 60 reports a month, and digital tech allows sex workers to instantly and anonymously access safety information when they need it most.

Like many charities, the digital tech we use is far from perfect, but we are constantly looking for ways to improve and evolve. We have piloted several new digital products and we use the learning from this experience to drive future innovations that will help us achieve our mission to end violence against sex workers.

Most people in the sector will have heard that a Charity Digital Code of Practice is being developed as a resource to improve the skills and confidence of organisations such as ours across the country. I believe that this has the potential not only to provide charities with practical advice on incorporating digital technology into their work, but also to support access to digital funding streams and help trustees and funders to understand its importance.

NUM’s digital journey so far has very much been a case of trial and error, but my hope is that the digital code will allow other small charities to kick-start their digital activity, increase their funding and ultimately support them to achieve their missions.

As long as there are problems in the world there will always be a need for charities that work hard to create positive change. Technology can support charities that are already incredibly effective by making them more efficient and, ultimately, helping them to make a bigger difference to more lives. That’s definitely something worth investing in.

Kerri Swindells is acting chief executive of National Ugly Mugs

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