Researchers to analyze sex trafficking networks

The new study begins Nov.1 and is a collaboration between multiple universities.

Nikki Pederson

A collaborative research project led by the University of Minnesota will study human trafficking networks and how to best disrupt them. 

The $300,000 project, which begins Nov. 1, will bring together social scientists, operations researchers, law enforcement personnel and sex trafficking survivors to identify the underlying structure and key features of sex trafficking networks, according to the research abstract. The researchers will also be working with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“There are many different ways of knowing about trafficking,” said Lauren Martin, the project’s principal investigator from the University. “We want to make sure we’re pulling in as much expertise as possible.”

By bringing together academic disciplines that normally don’t work together, Martin’s goal is to form a team that can think creatively about a complex social issue. Comprised of researchers from backgrounds including anthropology, sociology and engineering, Martin said this project will hopefully fill the gap between social science and research operations.

“I think that’s a really important part of this project, bringing in expert opinions who are survivors,” said Kayse Lee Maass, a co-principal investigator and professor at Northeastern University. The researchers will be able to understand sex trafficking from the perspectives of survivors, she said.

The National Science Foundation grant will apply qualitative analysis of law enforcement cases and stakeholder interviews to identify the most important features of sex trafficking networks, including their composition, how they adapt and the dependencies between their physical and cyber networks, according to the research abstract. 

“The long term goal is to create mathematical models of how to disrupt the trafficking networks,” said Thomas Sharkey, an industrial and systems engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “In order to know how to disrupt the networks, we need to know how they operate.”

According to research released in 2017 by the University’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, of which Martin is the director of research, sex trafficking is often representative of the area’s demographics. In Minnesota, middle-aged, white, married men are the majority of buyers. 

Vulnerable populations such as homeless people and victims of previous assault are the most likely to be affected by trafficking, according data provided by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. One of the goals of the project is to look at how sex trafficking and their networks affect those populations, Lee Maass said. With any disruption or change of networks, the team needs to be aware of the impact it can have on different groups.

“How do we improve the welfare and health of people living in vulnerable communities?” she said.