It wasn’t how they drew it up, when plans were to have all the competitors for the $3,000 grand prize spend the night in a single building, but the second annual “Hackathon” to combat human trafficking was a success nonetheless, according to organizers.
The self-isolation and social distancing protocols required the two-day competition to move to a virtual environment. Twenty teams made up of over 100 hackers—along with subject matter experts from academia, law enforcement, NGOs, and private sector—devoted the last weekend in March to attacking human trafficking and its associated crimes, and offering viable ideas on defeating the world’s second-most profitable criminal enterprise.
"In the midst of this doom and gloom, we had so much innovation, resourcefulness, and practical solutions that were really inspiring," said Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, which co-hosted the event with McLean, Va.-based Blue Compass, LLC. “We had participants that ranged from 14-years of age to mature professionals, and all of them found ways to contribute in exciting ways." The participants were almost evenly divided between students at all levels and technology and human trafficking professionals.
“In reality, changing the format to a virtual one drew contestants who might not have otherwise entered,” she added.
Blue Compass, with support from the TraCCC team, was innovative in moving the large event online without a hitch, she said. According to Jim Jones, director of Mason's Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis (CINA), “We're planning similar events over the coming months, and can use this hackathon as the model for how to move such activities online quickly and effectively.”
"Deriving actionable intelligence from large and complex data sets is the problem of the future, and these students have shown that the next generation is up to the task," Jones added.
"Within the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, we changed this Virginia-based event to be something much more encompassing with national and international participation," Shelley said. The hackathon’s 140 registered participants came from 15 states and seven different countries. Comprehensive introductory sessions on Saturday from noted human trafficking and tech specialists provided “so much content and substance,” Shelley added. “We can be teaching and using this material for a very long time to come on both the problems of human and child trafficking and ways to address it."
Second only to drug trafficking, human trafficking is a global $150 billion-a-year business disproportionately impacting women and children. Widespread use of technology has facilitated and increased accessibility of traffickers around the world. The hackathon at the Schar School was an effort to leverage technology against perpetrators and find innovative methods to combat child trafficking and assist victims.
The event ran seamlessly, said organizers, thanks to financial support from several significant corporate donors and Mason’s CINA. Top participants received prizes to recognize their hard work and innovation: The $3,000 grand prize was awarded to the local team of Jameelah Young, Cameron Peele, and Dorian Peele of Team Signal.
"We designed our project, 'Signal,' specifically to detect for this sort of exploitation, and to signal such events on behalf of the vulnerable," said Young. "After demonstrating how natural language processing and big data can be leveraged to provide this capability, we're interested in learning more about how research centers, non-government organizations, and local and federal government agencies identify and deploy solutions for this problem."
The high school team, Intellisearch, received the $1,000 student prize. Additional recognition for exceptional hacking included the Youngest Hacker award to a 14-year-old Northern Virginia resident named Josh; the Best Social Media post to a Northern Virginia high-school team from Touch of Life Foundation; and the Web Scraping Human Trafficking team received the Crowdsource Vote.
Visit TRACC or CINA to learn about upcoming virtual events.