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Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab

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Human trafficking for forced labor or sexual exploitation poses unique challenges for policymakers. Each year, an estimated 27 million to 46 million individuals worldwide are held in modern slavery, generating annual profits between $30 billion and $50 billion. However, little is known about how the market for trafficked individuals works – and, ultimately, how to prevent this phenomenon.

For decades, researchers have lacked large-scale sources of microdata on human trafficking, limiting the literature to either deep qualitative scholarship or accounting-like attempts to measure the scale of the problem. Apart from a handful of studies applying the tools of operations research to trafficking detection, we are not aware of any formal studies that have attempted to systematically study causal factors, prevention, or reintegration programs with quantitative rigor. Strikingly, only 12 percent of the published literature on trafficking was peer-reviewed. Without rigorous study, the policy response to trafficking has been uncoordinated and has had limited large-scale success.

The Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab aims to be at the forefront of quantitative scholarship and data-driven approaches to fighting human trafficking. During its formative period, the Lab has focused on two main goals. First, we have worked to develop a human trafficking data repository as a global model for integrating and curating existing (but disparate) administrative government data sources for new scholarship on trafficking markets. Initial work focuses on Brazil, where the research team has developed a strong government partnership and where data transparency laws create an unprecedented opportunity. Second, the Lab is advancing a set of rigorous multidisciplinary research projects using the data repository to better understand human trafficking markets and the impact of policies focused on them. The goal is for this planning and development phase to serve as a proof-of-concept, demonstrating what can potentially be done in other countries as well.

Brazil is a natural choice for the initial focus. The country has strong open data policies and a robust commitment to fighting human trafficking. The Brazilian Digital Observatory of Slave Labor is a resource designed to help policymakers and law enforcement make more informed decisions about anti-trafficking policy. The initiative plans to build on this foundation, greatly expanding the platform and transforming it into a data resource suitable for rigorous empirical research. Although Brazilian government records surely do not capture the full extent of trafficking in the country, this repository would be the first of its kind – a fully linked microdata resource capable of supporting innovative new research on human trafficking markets, victimization, and the most effective approaches to deterrence.

Visit the Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab website

Core faculty members

Other members

Initiative story

Melding artificial intelligence and algorithms with health care and policy to combat human trafficking

An interdisciplinary team of Stanford researchers — from economists to statisticians to pediatricians — is collaborating to fight the global scourge of human trafficking. 

Read the story