Trends in Human Trafficking + Technology

Preliminary Research - February 2016
Prepared for the Mayor's Office of the City of Houston
by January Advisors


At the request of the Mayor's Office at the City of Houston, we conducted 10 hours of research into technology and human trafficking.

We looked at apps, data-driven management approaches, and new platforms to help combat human trafficking.

We identified broad segments that we used to categorize projects. We did not try to create an exhaustive list of resources. You can follow our thinking here.

Our goal was to identify areas where the Mayor's office could make a meaningful contribution to this global movement.

Why is this important?

Human trafficking affects approximately 100,000 children.

Houston is in a unique position to observe and enact human trafficking prevention programs.

Even today, technology is still underused in the fight against human trafficking.

It's important to identify what the state of technology solutions is today, and to provide an outline of areas where the City of Houston can play an appropriate role.

Types of Projects

We looked at a variety of human trafficking projects and categorized them into one of three groups:

Educating the Public

These are projects designed to create broad awareness of the problem, as well as best practices for reporting and handling.

Technology that seeks to educate and inform falls into this segment.


  • Navigate and understand forced labor abuses within supply chains. Inspired legislation in 2015 (yet to pass) requiring supply chain transparency.
  • Know Your Slavery Footprint. Interactive website helps consumers understand how they rely on slave labor for goods and services. Designed to get people to “ask the brands you like to find out where their materials are coming from.”
  • Balkans Act Now! put together a human trafficking awareness game to educate kids and to help them report signs. This game is a bummer.


These are projects designed to assist with reporting suspicious incidents and providing support and insight for law enforcement.

Reporting apps, whistleblower hotlines, and data sharing practices are good examples of projects that fall into this category.


  • In Bangladesh, workers use the SmartLine app to report human rights violations.
  • Rescue Forensics is a data analytics platform specifically for agencies specializing in human trafficking.
  • Red Light Traffic has a popular app that helps people recognize the signs of human trafficking and helps them report it to the proper authorities.

Curtailing Demand

This is a segment underserved by technology. The logic is that demand for sex workers is so high, the only way to combat the systemic problem is to reduce demand.


Interesting Community Efforts

Open Innovation Challenges

Rethink Supply Chains is an open innovation challenge for solutions that bring about supply chain transparency and accountability.

Distributed Communities

Thorn is a coalition of tech professionals working on specific human trafficking problems: (1) accelerate victim identification, (2) disrupt platforms, and (3) deter predators.

Criticism of Human Trafficking Technology

This article provides an excellent overview of the arguments against investing in technology solutions to combat human trafficking. It raises three key points:

How do you create awareness of an app among the at-risk population that it serves?

“There is the question of whether the information provided by anti-trafficking apps reaches those who need it most. To be sure, potential victims of trafficking are as likely as anybody to have access to the Internet or a smartphone. But will those who are at risk of exploitation be aware of the existence of an app that can provide information about where they can seek help? Would someone heading abroad for work use an app that would alert them to signs that they may be about to be trafficked?”

How can an app provide immediate improvements to the victim's condition?

“Then there is the fact that there is already a lot of information on the Internet and elsewhere about the risks of human trafficking. And yet, every day, people make the potentially risky choice of moving from their home to accept a job under questionable conditions. How likely is it that an app that does nothing to improve the material conditions in which people live (which is what drives them to take risks) will encourage potential victims to consider their options more carefully? Without addressing these conditions, can awareness-raising technologies make a difference?”

How can the app overcome consistent undermining from human trafficking perpetrators?

“Finally, apps can be undermined by the coercion that often accompanies human trafficking. To be sure, one advantage of apps is that they can be quickly removed from a phone. But victims of human trafficking are often too fearful of repercussions to use the avenues of communication available to them to report the crimes being committed against them.”

With that said, what can we do?

Here Are Some Ideas

Industry-specific training programs

There is growing demand for training programs that target jobs that come into close contact with human trafficking perpetrators and victims. There are apps that help educate people (like Truckers Against Trafficking). There are also in-person programs, like Innocents at Risk, which specializes in educating the airline industry.

The City of Houston could take a leadership role by identifying industries, such as retail commercial real estate, and partnering with community organizations to develop and deploy industry-specific training programs.

Fight Human Trafficking with Open Data

How can we identify potential human trafficking violations by looking at unconventional datasets, such as Google and Yelp reviews? Or monitor commerical leasing data for suspicious activity?

The City of Houston could host an open challenge for the best methods of using publicly available data to identify potential offenders.

Encourage Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing ideas, patterns, analysis, and other tasks not only solves an immediate problem, but it also educates smart people about the nuances of human trafficking.

The City of Houston could use the existing 311 app to encourage the reporting of suspicious behavior.

Further Reading

All of our preliminary research is contained in this Google doc. You are welcome to leave comments there.

Some of the highlights from our research includes:

Want more links? Check out our research notepad.