Fight to end human trafficking gets new app

by Andre Mouchard

A new bit of technology, created by a grad student at UC Irvine and financed by one of Orange County’s leading philanthropists, soon could reshape the fight to end human trafficking.

When and if that happens, it’ll be changing a world of crime, suffering and, for the moment, a lot of unknowns.

For example, there are, depending on the estimate, between 25 million and 89 million people around the world — including several hundred in Orange County — trapped in a cycle broadly described as human trafficking. And depending on how the problem is described, those people are forced to provide a wide range of profitable labor — as sex workers or in manufacturing or on farms or as servants, among other things — without compensation.

In all, it is estimated that human trafficking churns out about $155 billion a year. Or a lot more, again, depending on who is totaling up the damage. What’s known, for certain, is that virtually all of the money goes to traffickers.

If all of those guesstimates seem wide, and the definitions of slavery seem plentiful, there’s a reason: No single group tracks human trafficking. Instead, there are dozens, ranging from well-known or easy to identify entities like the United Nations and the FBI and the Human Trafficking Institute to small nonprofits that work directly with victims in places as diverse as Cambodia and Uganda and Garden Grove.

But as disparate as those anti-trafficking forces are, they share a common challenge — no reliable data from victims.

Who is likely to be victimized and who isn’t? Why? What social factors help people break free from their traffickers? What helps them stay free? Those and many other questions could be better approached if trafficking experts had information based on the common experiences of thousands of victims.

Soon, they might.

Today, at a media event in Orange, the public is slated to get a first look at Freedom Lifemap, an online assessment questionnaire aimed at helping trafficking victims break free from their captors.

As part of the process, each Lifemap respondent is presented with a series of questions designed to identify why he has been enslaved, what he needs to remedy the situation and how he can regain his agency permanently.

Lifemap’s creator, Kelsey Morgan, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine and a noncomputer whiz who has worked with trafficking victims in Africa and Asia, says the questions are based on 49 indicators — everything from family support to money in the bank — that have been identified as “essential to lasting freedom.” (The basic idea came from a questionnaire that’s been successful at helping people break out of multigenerational poverty.)

Though each questionnaire is aimed at helping that specific victim break out of the cycle of slavery, Morgan said the answers will be collected (anonymously) to create a larger pool of information based on shared experiences. That data, she and others said, could reinvent the broader fight to end human trafficking, a practice that, by some estimates, has grown by about 22% since the first year of the pandemic.

So far, only about 250 trafficking victims around the world, including in Uganda and the Philippines — and a dozen at the Orangewood Foundation — have used a beta version of the Lifemap tool, answering questions and follow-ups to create what are known as assessments. By the end of next year, Morgan said the goal is to have about 5,000 such assessments.

As the data pool grows, it could form a baseline of information that researchers can use to identify the sometimes mysterious causes and solutions related to trafficking. Morgan hopes such data will be tapped by everybody from police and prosecutors to researchers and nonprofits to create a “common language” to fight trafficking.

“There’s an urgent need to understand the root causes that create this cycle, and to predict and identify trends and anomalies as a way to help break it,” Morgan said. “Right now, everybody is trying to do this separately. We don’t have any framework … to identify best practices.”

Morgan created the tool as part of her doctoral work at UC Irvine, but in the past year it has gained backing from the Samueli Foundation. Philanthropist Susan Samueli recently started a public campaign with the Ending Human Trafficking Collaborative to raise awareness about human trafficking and has been working for several years to come up with ways to help trafficking victims and, if possible, stamp out the practice altogether.

Lindsey Spindle, president of the Samueli Family Philanthropies, said the decision to finance the Lifemap project dovetails with Samueli’s broader ideas about philanthropy.

“Venture capital fuels innovation in the business world. But philanthropy can do the same for the social sector,” Spindle said. “We exist to back these big, innovative, bold ideas. And in this case, we believe this tool has a chance to uproot a big, entrenched problem. Human trafficking is a much bigger problem than everybody understands. It affects more people, and different people, than you’d think.”

Other experts say a huge pool of data could be a powerful tool for anti-trafficking researchers and law enforcement. But they said the source of that information — women, men and children who have survived the trafficking experience — is as important as the numbers.

“It’s important that we listen to people who understand this, the survivors, instead of telling anybody how they should feel or react,” said Sandra Morgan (no relation to Lifemap creator Kelsey Morgan), director of the Global Center for Women and Justice and a professor at Vanguard University who has worked to end trafficking in Southern California for decades.

Sandra Morgan, who sits on Kelsey Morgan’s doctoral committee, said the idea of collecting survivor stories and using that information as a tool has the potential to “change everything” in the push against human trafficking.

Still, Kelsey Morgan suggested it’s important to remember that the tool can help each survivor regain their freedom and keep it.

“It really is a life map. And it’s needed,” Kelsey Morgan said.

She’s developing a version of Lifemap for children as young as 8.

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