Big data helping bring human traffickers to justice

Global Emancipation Network (GEN) uses big data tool Minerva to identify traffickers and victims.

Written by Folake Dosu
Published on Oct. 14, 2018
Big data helping bring human traffickers to justice


While the tragedy of human trafficking is widely known, specifics on the number of people being trafficked today are murky. Studies offering numbers ranging from 20 to 45 million, (a margin of error greater than 100%) underscore the need for big data solutions.

Forbes reports how nonprofit organization Global Emancipation Network (GEN), led by Sherrie Caltagirone, sets out to change that with their big data tool Minerva which identifies both traffickers and victims.

“Human traffickers are reliant on current technology to increase their revenue. But the same technology can be used against them."

“Human traffickers are reliant on current technology to increase their revenue. But the same technology can be used against them,” describes Caltagirone about the possibilities of big data in addressing this issue.

Microsoft has been a proponent of GEN’s mission. The nonprofit has received technological support from Microsoft Philanthropies in addition to volunteer help, grants and discounts over the nonprofit’s two-year history as part of Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact Team. The Microsoft team has expressed admiration at GEN’s impact as a relatively small organization.

“GEN is just scratching the surface on the immense impact they can make in ending the human trafficking industry,” says Justin Spelhaug, general manager for the Microsoft program.

For Caltagirone, anti-trafficking efforts have been overdue for an overhaul. She cites historically ineffective strategies such as the FBI-led shutdown of online sex marketplace Backpage, which she dismisses as “whack-a-mole.”

Among users of Minerva is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), founded in 1984 by John and Revé Walsh, which centralizes information about missing and exploited children in the United States. An introduction in 2016 via Microsoft led to Caltagirone and GEN leading trainings for NCMEC’s staff and collecting user feedback to improve the tool.

Staca Shehan, the executive director of the case analysis division of the NCMEC, explains how the NCMEC uses Minerva for use cases such as finding additional phone numbers in online advertisements and analyzing owners of that phone to help locate the current location for a missing child. “Time is critical in missing child cases,” says Shehan, “and Minerva is one of the tools that support NCMEC’s efforts to generate leads quickly to support the child’s recovery.”

The dangerous nature of human trafficking makes it all the more imperative that its perpetrators are brought to justice. So far, Minerva has identified 989 individual victims and perpetrators and is tracking 22,000 more. Ending this heinous practice will not be simple, but with the Global Emancipation Network, people working in anti-trafficking can finally have numbers on the side.

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