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Modern slavery

Sex trafficking gets mapped and app’ed at hackathon

Brian Ulicny  Vice President, Thomson Reuters Labs

Brian Ulicny  Vice President, Thomson Reuters Labs

Last month, Jan. 2016, was declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month by President Obama. Thomson Reuters didn’t hesitate to show our commitment to using data to help stop slavery and human trafficking where it exists.

The U.S. State Department defines sex slavery as:

“When an adult is coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution – or maintained in prostitution through coercion – that person is a victim of trafficking…

Sex trafficking can also occur within debt bondage, as women and girls are forced to continue in prostitution through the use of unlawful “debt” purportedly incurred through their transportation, recruitment, or even their crude “sale,” which exploiters insist they must pay off before they can be free.”

Thomson Reuters Labs™ was proud to help organize and sponsor #HackTrafficking4Good – a two-day social justice hackathon to stop sex trafficking – in Boston’s District Hall. Many of our data scientists volunteered their time as participants.

A local and global problem

Thomson Reuters Labs helped plan the event over several months with Ziba Cranmer and her colleagues at Demand Abolition.

Programmers participate in a hackathon to end sex traffickingDespite blizzard warnings, an amazingly diverse group of nearly 100 volunteers participated in the Hackathon over the two days. Following welcoming remarks, a representative from Demand Abolition described the nature of problem: Charging prostitutes with a crime, particularly juveniles who have been trafficked into prostitution, is not a good way to eliminate trafficking; it is more effective to go after the suppliers (traffickers and pimps) and the buyers (johns).  Law enforcement is beginning to recognize that.

Audrey Morrissey, associate director of My Life My Choice and a survivor of the sex industry, explained how sex trafficking has gone from the streets – where it was visible to police in seedy areas like Boston’s old Combat Zone – to largely now operating online. From meeting girls to offering them up for sale against their will, traffickers’ actions are more covert in the digital world. Morrissey shared several harrowing anecdotes about trafficked children in the Boston area. The police and other authorities don’t necessarily have the tools or expertise to patrol this new online marketplace. That’s why the Hackathon generated so much enthusiasm from the Massachusetts Attorney General and Boston Mayor’s office, who also sponsored it, as well as representatives from human trafficking units in Boston itself; Phoenix, AZ; Oakland, CA; and the CEASE Network.

Val Richey, King County, Senior King County deputy prosecuting attorney, WA, showed how the approach is bearing fruit: his office used data from a local online “john board” (on which buyers review prostitutes) to shut down several brothels this month and prosecute 13 individuals, including the brothel owners, who had been bringing women from South Korea and forcing them into prostitution, sometimes in order to pay off family debts.  The women were shuttled among various cities in the Pacific Northwest to avoid detection and prevent escape.

Hacking data to stop sex trafficking

Hackathon participants organized into multiple teams based on projects that had been suggested with consultation from Thomson Reuters Labs.  These projects were intended to help authorities understand the market, disrupt it, and help trafficked persons who had been rescued. Specific projects included:

  • Analyzing changes in demand for paid sex based on keyword search volume for various cities over time
  • Mapping the social networks of johns on the john boards and doing analyses of the resulting graphs
  • Developing a smartphone-based app that different police jurisdictions can customize to suit their own needs but that will populate a central repository of arrest data that can be analyzed and shared across jurisdictions.
Prostitution arrests in Chicago and Seattle over time
Data Scientists produced these visualizations of arrest data by volume and type over time.

Data for all of these projects were obtained by NGO Thorn and hosted by Dataiku on their servers using their Data Science Studio platform.

On day 2 participants, including some new recruits, heard from Brad Myles, the CEO of Polaris Project, and anti-trafficking NGO with whom our government services group has worked.  Brad described the networked structure of Asian massage parlors and the horrific conditions and abuse that trafficked women in that industry undergo.

A highlight of the second day was a visit from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria, a women’s rights advocate and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School who founded Demand Abolition.

Maura Healey, Massachusetts Attorney General, collaborates with data scientists to end sex trafficking
Maura Healey, Massachusetts Attorney General, discusses solutions with data scientists and programmers at #HackTrafficking4Good

All three spent a considerable amount of time collaborating with the various teams and discussing their projects.  Mayor Walsh gave a moving speech about aspirations for Boston as a leader in anti-slavery and trafficking efforts.

After the hackathon, the work continues

Overall, government leaders and officials at the Hackathon were extremely pleased with results of this collaborative effort. Follow-up discussions about incorporating the projects into day to day operations are underway.

The impact of #HackTrafficking4Good proves the powerful potential of technology and social justice. However, leaders in Boston, Massachusetts joining forces with programmers to end sex trade is just a first step towards a true solution.

Get involved in the fight against sex trafficking

Visit Innovation @ to learn more about how we are pairing technology with human expertise and how you can get involved.

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