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Center affiliates help launch Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab

human trafficking team

Visiting Scholar Luis Fabiano de Assis and Senior Program Manager Jessie Brunner travelled to Indonesia together in 2019 for work in support of more data-driven anti-trafficking efforts. They are seen here with Indonesian colleagues Avi Nababan of the Human Rights Resource Center for ASEAN and Maidina Rahmawati of the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.

Jul 8 2020

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Meet the Researchers, Center News


By Jessie Brunner

Nearly three years ago, Center for Human Rights and International Justice Senior Program Manager Jessie Brunner was invited to Greentree Estate on Long Island, NY to help set the agenda for measuring achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7, focused on eradicating human trafficking and child labor. During the third session of the first day, her ears perked up as a Brazilian federal prosecutor addressed the working group on the subject of “Data and knowledge as a spur to government action.”

The prosecutor, Dr. Luis Fabiano de Assis, delighted the audience – an impressive roster of folks representing multilaterals like the International Labour Organization and UN Migration, a number of renowned universities, donors like Freedom Fund and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and international NGOs such as Walk Free Foundation – with vibrant geospatial data that stood out amidst the quaint meeting room. Assis, who brings professional data science skills to his lawyerly duties, challenged those present to think beyond customary approaches to the question of what is considered useful data, demonstrating that administrative data related to employment, migration, and social benefits, for example, could shed valuable light on the nature and scope of the problem. 

“My work as a federal prosecutor has long been focused on how to use data to generate robust evidence that advances interventions not only to eradicate human trafficking, modern slavery, and child labor, but also to address other socioeconomic inequalities, occupational safety and health issues, and support vulnerable populations of workers,” says Assis. “A large part of that is creating data-driven online platforms and tools to engage national and international stakeholders with the public agenda.”

Assis’ message at the meeting underscored a point Brunner (and others) had been promulgating in her own research on human trafficking – that in order to make and measure progress in the fight against human trafficking, the movement needed localized, actionable, high-quality data. Meanwhile, back at Stanford, Prof. Grant Miller, an associate professor at the School of Medicine and King Center faculty affiliate, was becoming interested in the subject of human trafficking and his longtime colleague Dr. Kimberly Babiarz, a research scholar at the Center for Health Policy, was eager to get back to the subject, having formerly worked on human trafficking in China. Brunner and Miller had been meeting regularly for months to consider gaps in the human trafficking research landscape when the opportunity arose to bring Assis to Stanford’s campus as a Visiting Scholar, supported by a grant from Stanford’s Office of International Affairs and the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund. For nearly a year, the core group – which has expanded to include Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and longtime anti-trafficking advocate Dr. Vicki Ward – has been convening as the Human Trafficking Data Lab every Thursday morning to explore a number of innovative research streams, one of which was recently funded collaboratively by U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and University of Georgia’s African Programming and Research Initiative to End Slavery. The King Center on Global Development has further supported the Human Trafficking Data Lab through its faculty-led, multidisciplinary initiative program.

“As I learned more about the millions of men, women, and children forced into servitude as slave laborers or exploited in the commercial sex industry, I also realized most fundamental questions about how human trafficking markets work have not yet been answered,” says Miller. “That is a fundamental goal of the Human Trafficking Data Lab we’ve established at Stanford using innovative approaches from various disciplines that leverage the power of cutting-edge research and data analytics.”

Through the State Department grant, the Human Trafficking Data Lab will be estimating the prevalence of human trafficking in Brazil’s agricultural sector using two distinct sampling techniques, including drawing from a comprehensive list of all known trafficking cases in Brazil. The team also hopes to learn more about the implications of adopting alternative definitions of this type of exploitation – such as from the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children; Brazilian criminal code; and the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 29 – on prevalence estimations. This work supplements the lab’s existing research on other facets of human trafficking in Brazil, which rests on an integrated data resource they have built over the past year, linking dozens of different Brazilian administrative databases with microdata on millions of Brazilian households and tens of thousands of trafficking victims pulled together primarily from open data sources.

This repository enables quantitative empirical research at a scale and caliber not previously possible in the anti-trafficking field. The lab’s current research initiatives include:

·      Decision Support for Anti-Trafficking Task Forces. To assist anti-trafficking task forces in evaluating the accuracy and urgency of new reports of trafficking, the team is developing a decision support tool for anti-trafficking agents. 

·      Quasi-Experimental Impact Evaluations of Current Public Programs. Based on the commonly held belief that poverty alleviation is among the most potent tools in trafficking prevention, the lab is conducting impact evaluations of Brazil’s major anti-poverty programs to test this proposition, starting with Brazil’s flagship conditional cash transfer program, Bolsa Familia.

·      The Impact of Corporate Sanctions – and How Companies Evade Them. Using relevant time-series data, the lab examines the impact of Brazil’s Dirty List on firm valuation and identifies corporate tactics for evading its intended financial consequences. 

·      Artificial Intelligence for Identification of Illegal Labor Camps. Using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence tools, the lab is developing algorithms that can quickly identify transitory labor camps associated with illegal deforestation and charcoal production – and often slave labor – enabling more timely intervention than previously possible.

Through collaboration with additional Stanford faculty, the Human Trafficking Data Lab boasts expertise in a broad range of disciplines, including law, economics, medicine, statistics, computer science, and business. The lab is particularly enthusiastic about engaging a number of graduate students and undergraduates in its work, including a PhD student at the Graduate School of Business, who is supporting the lab’s work on corporate governance, and a PhD student in the Department of Statistics supporting the lab’s work in developing decision support algorithms. This summer, two new undergraduates supported by the King Center will join the team, including Maria Clara Rodrigues, who brings both her native Portuguese (she hails from Rio de Janeiro) and coursework in economics and policy. Together, the students will work to map and document the data repository underlying the work of the lab in an effort to institutionalize and scale its work in other contexts. 

“My coursework in policy and economics has led me to believe that systemic reforms as well as local incentives are essential to achieve economic development and promote social justice – I think the lab can help achieve both in the anti-trafficking field,” Rodrigues said. “With the lab, I hope we can advance efforts to implement the best practices in gathering, treating, and disseminating data and at the same time equip me with unique research training that I believe is valuable for my career.”

As the lab navigates the implications of the novel coronavirus pandemic on its various research initiatives, there are plans to travel to Brazil, when able, to engage in two-way learning with key government and civil society stakeholders – gathering a deeper understanding of how existing data are used and how the lab’s work might encourage new insights – while consolidating existing local partnerships. Ensuring the lab’s work meets needs of those at the frontlines of the anti-trafficking effort and promotes successful implementation and scalability to additional countries of supported interventions remains a key priority.