Brian Ulicny: Interview with a Tech Visionary

Posted by on November 29, 2017 in Spotlight

Brian Ulicny is a founding member of Thomson Reuters Labs – Boston, which partners with outside organizations and companies, as well as internal teams, to evaluate data-driven innovations using curated data sets across multiple disciplines. Brian has a PhD in Linguistics and Philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the Chief Scientist at VIStology, Inc, a semantic web startup.  During his time in Boston, he has used technology to develop creative ways to end labor and sex trafficking. We asked Brian a few questions about his work combating the illegal sex industry.

Q: It sounds like Thomson Reuters does a lot of work around human trafficking and sex trafficking. Why this particular area?

Thomson Reuters builds many products and solutions that have a positive societal impact. Combatting sex trafficking in the supply chain is not only the right thing to do, but something that is an extreme reputational risk for our customers.

Q: Last year, the Thomson Reuters Innovation Lab and Demand Abolition co-hosted a hackathon in Boston where 100 programmers and technologists put their heads together and brainstormed imaginative projects to disrupt demand. Why did you participate in the hackathon and was it successful?

I lead a group of data scientists and our Lab was working on a project identifying forced labor in supply chains. We saw an ad in a data science newsletter for a hackathon in New York, led by someone from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, on data science against slavery. Several of us went down to participate, and it opened our eyes about the realities of online sex trafficking and the opportunity to use data in this fight. We met someone from Demand Abolition, and decided that we should do a much bigger and better event in Boston, where both organizations are based.

We were really excited about how the Boston hackathon turned out: to have the mayor and the attorney general show up, and to have so many women and people of color participate. It was great to realize that we could do something that might help. The one-day hackathon in New York really wasn’t enough time to get too much done.

I think it was successful on a number of levels: one being some of the projects that were started at the event have actually gone on to be deployed in various ways by law enforcement and other people.

I go to a lot of technology-oriented events, and I’ve never been to one that had as many women and minorities participating in a hackathon. That was great. The topic really resonates with women in technology especially, so I thought that was good. I just think that the number of people who participated in the hackathon and the quality of the projects they put together was great.

Demand Abolition did a fantastic job organizing the event, and we were happy to help.

Q: How can companies like Thomson Reuters help stop sex trafficking?

TR does an enormous amount in this area, which may be a surprise to a lot of people. First, our TR Special Services division works directly with government agencies on sex trafficking. Our CLEAR product [an online investigative platform that streamlines research] provides information to law enforcement about people and their criminal histories. Our Third Party Risk tools [which prevent the potential risk that a company gains when relying on outside parties to do certain jobs] help customers identify human trafficking risks in their supply chains, and our Know Your Customer products [which help customers know who they are doing business with] help fight money laundering from the proceeds of crimes like human trafficking. The Thomson Reuters Foundation helped launch the US Bankers Alliance with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to fight human trafficking with financial data. In 2017, the foundation launched the European Bankers Alliance. The foundation also funds 45 journalists to report on human trafficking and other under-reported issues worldwide. Through the TrustLaw program, we connect high-quality pro bono lawyers with nongovernmental organizations that need legal help.

Q: What can the average person do to end sex trafficking?

Thomson Reuters is always looking for lawyers who can help with our pro bono work both at the organizational level and also to help people who have been exploited. Additionally, the foundation funds journalists. I think the basic thing that everyone can and should do is educate themselves about this issue, understand what they can do to spot people being exploited, and understand that reporting this is super important and critical.

Obviously, this is not my full-time job, but being able to do whatever I can to fight exploitation with the skills that I have is really important.


The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.

About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements. We want to showcase these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. 

Read more in our Spotlight Series: Leaders in the Movement »

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