By Dhakir Warren, Senior Social Innovation Manager, Demand Abolition
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Ambassador Swanee Hunt learn about several projects born out of the social justice hackathon
At a two-day “hackathon” in Boston, more than 100 programmers and technologists pooled their skills to develop nine imaginative projects to disrupt the demand that fuels sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey joined the gathering on its closing day to express support for the assembled hackers. This social justice hackathon to combat online sex trafficking was co-sponsored by Thomson Reuters’ Data Innovation Lab and Demand Abolition.
Hackathons bring together tech-savvy people for short bursts of intense collaboration to create or find new ways to use technology to solve a single problem. In this case, “hackers” from MIT, Harvard, Thomson Reuters, Microsoft, and other tech firms gathered to develop cutting-edge approaches to eradicate one of the world’s oldest and most egregious forms of exploitation. Mayor Walsh and the attorney general were on hand to see the projects develop in real time. After visiting with the teams and getting demonstrations, both officials grew increasingly enthusiastic about the many ways data can be used to disrupt online sex-buying.
“We’re looking to change the conversation around prostitution. It’s exploitation and abuse, not a victimless crime,” Mayor Walsh told the crowd. “Your work here will make a difference in someone’s life. Your skills will help someone who is struggling, and for that I thank you.”
Domestic human trafficking—and especially sex trafficking—is widespread and particularly hurts vulnerable women and children. In Massachusetts alone, more than 75 percent of trafficking cases prosecuted by the Attorney General’s office involve victims being sold on websites and chatrooms—making the Internet the front line in the war against commercial sexual exploitation.
“This is what it takes to disrupt the market that sells vulnerable people,” AG Healey said after visiting with several of the hacking teams. “The work being done in this room will have a profound impact on so many people’s lives.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Ambassador Swanee Hunt
The surest way to stop commercial sexual exploitation is to increase the pressure faced by those who fund it—the sex buyers who create the demand for this predatory enterprise and keep pimps and traffickers in business.
For two days, teams of programmers, coders, web developers, data analysts, and visualization experts worked on various projects to reduce the online demand for paid sex and at the same time to develop a platform that connects prostituted people with services such as shelter, food, and other resources.
In between sessions, attendees learned more about the issue from anti-trafficking experts, including:
- Survivor leader Audrey Morrissey of My Life My Choice
- King County (Washington) Senior Deputy Prosecutor Valiant Richey
- Bradley Myles, CEO of human trafficking watch group Polaris
- Ambassador Swanee Hunt, Chair of Demand Abolition.
“We can help victims of the sex trade forever, but sadly there will always be other vulnerable people to take their place,” Ambassador Hunt told the crowd. “But if we go after the buyers and reduce the demand, we can end this problem.”
Each speaker brought a different perspective to the discussion, but all focused on a common theme: as commercial sexual exploitation moves deeper online, we need to be there, too. Those who profit from the sex trade are heavily invested in covering their digital tracks; law enforcement and nonprofits looking to help victims often lack the resources or technical know-how to stay on pace. That’s why Ritchey thinks events like the hackathon are so important.
“We are talking about a massive online infrastructure to exploit people and we’re in a marathon against them. They started the race two hours ago, and now we’re playing massive game of catch up,” Richey said. “We’re getting dusted out there, but the people in this room can change that. You are the warriors of Windows and with your help we can devise new ways to level the digital playing field, taking the advantage away from the exploiters and putting it in the hands of those working to help people.”
Demand Abolition’s Ziba Cranmer and Delaney Workman join Mayor Walsh and Ambassador Hunt