Culverhouse Faculty Team Makes INFORMS Finals for Analytical Pipeline to Combat Sex Trafficking


A Culverhouse team consisting of ISM faculty members Drs. Nickolas K. Freeman, Gregory J. Bott, Burcu B. Keskin, Jason Parton, and James J. Cochran placed second in the 2023 INFORMS Innovative Applications in Analytics Award (IAAA) competition in April with their research, “Analytical Pipeline for Identifying Potential Sex Trafficking Victims in Commercial Sex Ad Data.” The award, which is open to data practitioners in industry as well as academics, “recognize(s) the creative and unique application of analytical techniques” and tries to solve problems with measurable impact on society or business.

Each day, more than 100,000 new ads and more than 500,000 images are posted on commercial sex trafficking sites. Although ad data can provide important insights for counter-trafficking efforts, linking the large volume of ads is challenging. To complicate matters further, many of these sex trafficking ads are actually financial scams in disguise, where scammers create ads based on fake sex workers, with the goal of obtaining deposits via electronic payment methods. One way the pipeline can identify these scams, Nick Freeman explained, is by tracking ads where an individual sex worker is “available” in multiple states at the same time, which is obviously impossible.

In 2020, the Institute of Data and Analytics (IDA) at The University of Alabama launched the Sex Trafficking Analytics for Network Detection and Disruption (STANDD) initiative. The STANDD team developed and maintains an analytical pipeline that utilizes novel technologies and methodologies from information systems, network science, and machine learning to remove anomalies due to scam ads, link the remaining data into groups representing individuals, and utilize these data groups for network and movement detection.

Data products from this pipeline have been in service since 2021, helping law enforcement and non-profit organizations establish contact with more than 40 potential sex trafficking victims, many of whom are now connected with services to help them transition into safe situations. “It is rewarding to conduct research using data to touch and better human life,” Keskin said.

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