Q&A: How States are Using Data to Drive Better Outcomes for Victims of Human Trafficking

Q&A: How States are Using Data to Drive Better Outcomes for Victims of Human Trafficking

While all states have sought to eliminate human trafficking, the greatest hurdle has long been a lack of reliable, up-to-date information about who’s involved in trafficking, where it’s taking place, and the co-existing social issues that might predict its occurrence.

That is why DCJS and Voyatek partnered to launch Virginia Analysis System for Trafficking (VAST). Through VAST, organizations across the Commonwealth will now have insights into who is falling victim to trafficking, who’s perpetrating the crime, where it’s taking place, which external factors contribute to its incidence, and whether it’s increasing or decreasing. Virginia will be better equipped to aid victims, prosecute criminals, and prevent trafficking.

We had a chance to sit down with Samuel Zohab, Project Analyst at Voyatek and a lead contributor on the VAST platform, to learn more about how the platform was developed and how it is being used to create a safer community for Virginia’s residents.

Q: In simple terms, can you explain how the technology works? What methods does it use to gather data?

The Voyatek data science team uses a variety of programming languages and methods to aggregate publicly available data from assorted, previously siloed sources on children who have been reported missing. These data sources include:

An effective data sharing program not only brings together data from a myriad of sources but organizes the data in a way that empowers on-the-ground decision making by those working on the front lines. The key here is that the user experience is designed for non-technical users, not data scientists. Our team does this by incorporating a self-service analytics layer into the data sharing platform. This gives approved community organizations – social services, law enforcement and other government and nonprofit organizations – the dashboards, reports, and data visualization tools they need to interpret data as they respond to the crisis.

The collected and correlated data allows agencies to understand trends in offenses, contextualize risk factors, and better target services to victims.

Q: How does VAST differentiate at-will, commercial sex work from sex trafficking? Does VAST monitor both or does it only log confirmed cases of sex trafficking?

VAST monitors and differentiates both commercial sex work and human trafficking. Visualizations within VAST enable users to distinguish between incidents of trafficking as opposed to commercial sex work – an important distinction that can affect victims and the organizations that serve them.

Different data sources code offenses differently. For example, the NIBRS data separates commercial sex works from trafficking. With municipalities, offense codes are determined by local police. It is suspected that trafficking victims are often wrongly classified as at-will sex workers due to lack of training and knowledge of what to look for. The team behind VAST goes out into the field and provides training to law enforcement, teaching them to recognize the difference and more accurately identify victims of trafficking, as well as how to code the information properly.

Q: Human trafficking victims often don’t self-report because they are afraid of police officers or that reporting will lead to their own incarceration or deportation. What safeguards does VAST have in place in order to protect victims from this?

Victims of human trafficking are often mislabeled as commercial sex workers, particularly in states where sex work is illegal. Here is an unfortunately common scenario: victims, oftentimes in need of money or other necessities, are provided that necessity via a pimp and in return supply sex. In the face of an investigation, these victims are too frightened to abandon or report their pimp, so the investigations close as a commercial sex work case and the victim is charged with a crime rather than provided support services. These victims are caught in a cycle of distrust of the legal system. Though progress has been made across local and federal governments over the past few years, it is still a major issue that goes underreported.

The VAST project has taken several steps to ensure the data that is gathered is not used against victims of trafficking, but rather supports them. VAST is built on top of the Commonwealth Data trust, a legal framework for managing shared data that establishes common rules for data security and confidentiality: the specific data that will be shared, how it will be shared, which members will contribute to it, and which members will access it. In regard to data confidentiality, when analysis is completed on the data, personal identifiers are removed so that individual identities cannot be determined.

Q: Are there any preliminary results you can share of how effective VAST has been in stopping human trafficking?

One of the original goals of the VAST project, which was initiated in January of 2022, was to use the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children registry to better target Commonwealth localities with a higher incidence of missing children. This analysis pinpointed 5 localities, which revealed opportunities to connect to resources in law enforcement with social services to understand the particulars of why children are at risk in those communities. As we receive more data from both the agencies and the public domain, we will look for patterns or activities that may predispose a child to trafficking. Over time, we can generate a profile of those most vulnerable, or look for certain localities which may, for example, have low population density but relatively high counts of missing children. The collected and correlated data allows us to understand trends in offenses, contextualize risk factors, better target services to victims, and prevent trafficking.

Q: Does Voyatek have any plans to bring this kind of technology to other municipalities?

Voyatek is committed to helping state and local governments across the country tackle some of their largest public health challenges by utilizing data to drive decision making. We help states implement the right processes to facilitate data sharing, enable data governance, broker relationships, drive analytics, and promote a data-centric culture. Through these steps, governments are better able to take a data-driven approach to public health challenges and deliver positive outcomes to their residents.