Female Computer Scientist Students Hack to Combat Human Trafficking

The following is a post by Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections.


According to the Department of Justice, 40 percent of all human trafficking incidents opened for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010 were for sexual trafficking of a child. The majority of these children who are bought and sold for sex are girls between the ages of 12 and 14. Eighty-three percent of victims in confirmed sex trafficking incidents were identified as U.S. citizens.

The Internet is playing a central role in the rising numbers of American children sold for sex. With the Internet, the trafficker and the buyer have full anonymity and discretion in their sale and purchase of the child.

Given that Internet technology is being used for exploitation and trafficking, how might the tools and opportunities of the Internet also be used for the protection and defense of victims? How might a victim of trafficking be able to access the Internet to find her freedom?

This is one of four questions that students at university campuses around the world—including University of Washington, University of Southern California, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa State University, Colorado School of Mines, University of Sindh in Pakistan, University of Melbourne in Australia and universities in Colombia, Brazil, and Kenya—will have an opportunity to answer when they participate in the first-ever, international women-only hackathon this weekend, February 22–24.

Sponsored by Microsoft Research Connections, Microsoft Imagine Cup, the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women in Computing (ACM-W), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering (IEEE-W) and Skype, the International Women’s Hackathon is a crowdsourcing event aimed at helping young women feel confident about their computer science capabilities and excited by opportunities to solve global problems. Young women will have the opportunity to create mobile, web, and social media applications as well as games to help support social issues related to women. Young women will be able to be the innovators to support three great nonprofit organizations: FAIR Girls, HumanRights4Girls and the Hindsight Group.

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As the Principal Research Director in Microsoft Research Connections, I focus on how we grow more women and under-represented groups in computing. For Microsoft to be the most innovative company driving technology innovations for the next 10 years and into the future, we must have diverse teams solving the world’s greatest problems by using computing. When I look back to my college experience as a mechanical engineering student taking courses in electrical and computer science engineering, I remember looking for opportunities that would enable me to make bigger impact in the world. I remember myself and my fellow women engineers looking for research opportunities that would enable us to solve more global problems and problems that also related to social issues. That is why I got involved in robotics and mechanical limbs research.

Now, 15 years later, I see the same themes as I visit campuses in the United States, Korea, and various European countries. As I Skype with young women from the Middle East, India, Latin America, and Australia, I routinely hear, “I want to make an impact and solve big world problems. Can I really do that in computer science?” In addition, I hear these young women questioning their capabilities and expressing a lack of confidence in entering hackathons and computing competitions. This is why we are launching this International Women’s Hackathon: to help young women build their confidence, their capabilities, and their networks and to help them see that they can have a significant impact in the world through computing. That they can build solutions to help victims of human trafficking get out of exploitative situations and help ensure that younger girls do not fall prey to the same exploitation.