Virginia Leverages Data Sharing and Analysis to Power the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Virginia Leverages Data Sharing and Analysis to Power the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a modern scourge involving the recruitment, transport, confinement and exploitation of children or adults for forced labor or sex. It has been reported in all 50 states.

By the numbers, the Commonwealth of Virginia falls in the middle for trafficking cases, well below California’s 1,300 annual reported cases yet a bit higher than more than half of states. But experts agree that trafficking is significantly undercounted across the country.

Like all states, Virginia seeks to eliminate trafficking and its damaging impact on both individuals and society. To that end, the Commonwealth’s Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) has launched an innovative digital platform, Virginia Analysis System for Trafficking (VAST). Created in collaboration with Qlarion, a Voyatek company, VAST is delivering new insights and providing new weapons against human trafficking in Virginia.

Human Trafficking and the Data Deficit

Among the biggest challenges in combating trafficking is “the lack of reliable, high-quality information,” according to the U.N.’s Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative. This dearth of data has multiple causes.

First, trafficking victims seldom self-report, out of fear of harm to themselves or their families. Second, there are no federal mandates for the collection of trafficking data. Child, elder and intimate-partner abuse must be reported by healthcare and social workers in most states, but there’s no nationwide requirement to report suspected cases of trafficking.

But perhaps the biggest difficulty is that state agencies and local jurisdictions typically lack strategies for sharing what data they have, as well as the technology for analyzing it. As a consequence, social services, law enforcement and other government and nonprofit organizations that work to address trafficking don’t have reliable and up-to-date information.

VAST is designed to eliminate these shortcomings. The platform provides 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. With VAST, organizations across Virginia are better equipped to aid victims, prosecute criminals and prevent trafficking.

A Powerful Tool to Fight Trafficking

DCJS is one of 10 agencies in Virginia’s Secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security. The department is charged with planning and carrying out programs and initiatives to improve the function and effectiveness of state’s criminal justice system. It’s also responsible for coordinating Virginia’s response to trafficking.

VAST gives DCJS and other agencies a crucial tool in that effort. The platform is built on an innovative data-sharing framework that allows secure exchange of previously siloed information across organizations. The collected and correlated data allows agencies to understand trends in offenses, contextualize risk factors and better target services to victims.

With VAST, stakeholders can quickly access data on incidents, victims, offenders and arrests. They can view color-coded maps of these details by county across the state. They can also see breakdowns of incidents and arrests for trafficking that involves sex versus forced labor.

Charts and graphs enable users to quickly understand details that include:

  • Victim and offender demographics such as age, gender, race or ethnicity and resident status
  • Relationship between offender and victim such as a victim being trafficked by a family member or acquaintance
  • Offender possession of drugs by drug type
  • Location such as hotel, bar, commercial building or residence
  • Events such as conferences or sporting events

This data can empower stakeholders to understand previously hidden correlations. For instance, they can determine that certain types of events can result in trafficking spikes, that an increase in drug trafficking might lead to an upward trend in human trafficking or that victims in a certain age range are more likely to be trafficked by a family member. These insights enable agencies to target interventions and better understand whether programs are having an impact.

Visualizations 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. VAST is helping DCJS train law enforcement to recognize the difference between forced and at-will sex work to more accurately identify victims of trafficking.

VAST also includes a Missing Child Dashboard that’s giving Virginia new visibility into missing children in the state. Users can now aggregate data, filter by demographics such as age, sex and race, see when a child entered or exited the database, track increases or decreases of missing children by location, create visualizations and more.

Extending Data-Driven ROI

VAST builds on an earlier investment in data sharing and a data-trust agreement among state and local agencies in Virginia. The agreement, along with supporting technology, was implemented in collaboration with Qlarion, a Voyatek company.

The strategy and technology initially enabled Virginia to establish the Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation (FAACT) to combat opioid addiction in the state. That initiative shares data among DCJS, state and local police, the department of forensic sciences, private healthcare systems and other organizations. Based on the success of FAACT, Virginia then worked with Voyatek to extend the platform to help track COVID-19 in the state and coordinate response.

VAST is now extending Virginia’s data-driven investments to fight human trafficking. The platform is community-focused, so it uncovers trends and contributing factors at the local level. It’s also scalable, so its capabilities can be expanded as needed across the state. And it demonstrates the power of data sharing and analytics to support programs and services that benefit residents.