An estimated 24.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. The majority of these individuals are tricked, threatened, or coerced into forced labor in domestic work, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, the food industry, or other areas. Approximately one-fifth of them are forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. Although it’s notoriously difficult to track, the industry is thought to be worth $150 billion.
Fighting human trafficking is complicated. Traffickers tend to prey on marginalized communities, where people have fewer support systems. Many victims have been misled and are afraid to come forward, or may not fully understand their situation. And those individuals who are able to escape may struggle to find housing or employment as they re-enter society.
Kayse Lee Maass, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern, believes engineers have tools that can help. The same techniques used to model supply chains or plan media campaigns can be adapted to find ways to disrupt trafficking networks or organize support services for survivors.
“We have different industrial engineering or operations research techniques that we can use,” Maass said. “They haven’t necessarily been applied to human trafficking, but could potentially be expanded to address those issues.”
Maass is collaborating with other engineers, as well as criminologists, public health professionals, sociologists, and human trafficking experts to determine how engineering-inspired modeling can be used to support ongoing efforts to combat trafficking.
She has formed partnerships both in the United States and abroad. With a group in Nepal, she is examining factors contributing to potential trafficking across the border with India. Closer to home, she is working with U.S. organizations to model the underground networks that traffickers use to exploit victims. These models could help organizations test different intervention efforts before putting them into place. She is also working to help survivors, using supply-chain models to determine where recovery services need to be built or improved.
Maass and her fellow engineers hope to provide mathematical tools that can help trafficking experts make the best possible decisions. But to do that, she needs to understand the nuances that those experts are considering and include these aspects in her models.
“It’s really important, as an engineer, to not just go into a place thinking your models are going to solve everything,” Maass said. “You have to work with people who know the context.”
Most industrial engineering models are looking to either maximize profits or minimize costs. But for something like building a support system for survivors, Maass must incorporate how receptive a community might be and what biases might be affecting decisions.
“We have to think beyond time and cost, and think about what actually goes into societal benefit,” Maass said. “How do we put that into our model so that we’re not just thinking of people as their monetary worth?”
The biggest challenge in building these models is the lack of solid data on human trafficking. Where company executives would provide all the information an industrial engineer needs to understand their supply network, human traffickers are actively trying to keep that information hidden. A lot of information comes from victims, but even that may be unreliable if individuals are worried about their legal status or repercussions for things they did while being trafficked.
This is compounded by the fact that human trafficking is defined slightly differently by various organizations, and is often tangled up in other issues such as organized crime or domestic violence.
Even with the right data, perfect solutions are hard to find. Human traffickers will predict changes and adapt to them. If prevention efforts increase in one area, they will move to a different community.
“You’re never just looking at a static system,” Maass said. “You have to think about how your modeling is going to evolve after you make a change.”
Still, Maass thinks these models can be a valuable tool in the fight against human trafficking.
“The more we understand what human trafficking really looks like, the more we can make sure that we’re using the limited resources that we have, in the limited time that we have, to invest in the areas that are going to make the most difference,” Maass said. “That’s something that industrial engineering can help with.”