Hacking to fight trafficking
Photo: Rachel Wu
The International Labour Organization estimates that human trafficking is the third-largest and fastest-growing illicit market worldwide, generating upward of $150 billion in illegal profits each year.
Technology has played a role in facilitating the rapid growth of the industry, especially in sex trafficking, which accounts for $99 billion of the global black market. Low startup costs, combined with cheap distribution facilitated by the internet and the lure of huge profits, has made sex trafficking a less risky venture than selling drugs.
Detailed data on human trafficking is hard to come by because it is not consistently tracked. The data that does exist is often rough due to the inherently hidden nature of the crime. Without accurate data and analytics, it is difficult to evaluate ideas and understand the impact of the interventions taken by law enforcement officials and others to prevent people from being trafficked. A process to measure their efforts is needed, and this is where some believe technology can help.
Yet despite a growing mandate to repurpose technology in fighting these crimes, there is still a limited amount of engineering effort being applied in this problem space. In other words, the potential to disrupt the market with technological solutions is enormous, and the possibilities for effecting change in this domain is endless.
In 2017, two classmates at the MIT Sloan School of Management launched a nonprofit organization to do just that. Founded by Mirar Bristol and Eric Ross, both graduates of MIT Sloan’s Executive MBA program, The Freedom Lab aims to bring a systems-dynamic approach to interrupting the sex trafficking industry within regional markets through innovation. The laboratory’s three-pronged method includes driving research and development, creating and implementing systems-based interventions, and coordinating funds across counter-trafficking entities.
“It really all started with the ‘Leading with Impact’ class at Sloan,” says Bristol. “This is a class where the executive MBAs are tasked to support local nonprofits with business challenges in the final semester.”
Bristol explains that it was during this class that she began engaging with Ross on the topic at hand when he and his team were working with a clinic that treats victims of sex trafficking.
“It was not even my project. I was helping out due to my health care connections,” she says. “Although we both had previous interest in the challenge, we individually came at the challenge from completely different backgrounds.”
“We both became obsessed with analyzing the systemic problems that were driving such a horrific industry. We were talking about it all the time,” Bristol explains. “In classic MIT fashion, we wanted more data in order to understand the problem. As we looked for more data, we were struck with how little was really out there. It was at this point, as we looked at the gaps in the current data and how to fill them, that we started to sketch out the ideas that became The Freedom Lab.”
Bristol likens the role of The Freedom Lab to a fusion cell. By synchronizing counter-trafficking activities in different sectors and acting as a node in this network, her aim is to drive innovation, support information sharing, and initiate collaboration. One of the ways in which the organization pursues this goal is by hosting hackathons, a platform Bristol believes can offer teams of impassioned individuals to come together and solve big problems.
In October, The Freedom Lab co-organized Hacking for Freedom: A Hackathon to Stop Sex Trafficking with the MIT Innovation Initiative. The hackathon invited students to join the fight and develop technological solutions to enable continuous tracking, measuring, and mapping of human trafficking activities.
Over the course of the two-day hack, many of the solutions proposed were designed to help law enforcers — who are often working with limited time and resources — organize evidence, optimize workflow, prioritize emails obtained from subpoenas, and digest complex data.
Case Builder, a team composed of students from MIT, Boston University, Olin College of Engineering, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, was awarded the top prize of $2,000 for their idea to automate the process of searching and extracting evidence to reduce the burden on law enforcement when building a case to prosecute perpetrators.
Throughout the weekend, counter-trafficking experts from across a number of nonprofits, law enforcement, and industry groups ran workshops, gave presentations, and served as mentors to the teams.
Giving the opening remarks, Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Applied Economics Roberto Rigobon, who studies properties of international pricing practices to produce alternative measures of inflation, spoke to the participants about the significance of rewarding ideas that produce social value. He congratulated everyone for taking this step and thanked them for their time and effort to advance such an important cause.
“What you are doing today is trying to provide tools to understand something we are completely blind about. Hopefully, this is the start of a long career and long passion for you not only in hacking, but in something as important as human trafficking,” Rigobon said. “We can make an incredible amount of difference just by taking tiny steps.”