The anti-trafficking movement needs better data to solve the problem, Stanford researchers say

Stanford’s researchers have created resources about data gathering for people working in the anti-human trafficking field, including best practices about getting responsible and reliable data when working with hidden and vulnerable populations.

When people want data on human trafficking, they might turn to widely cited statistics, such as a study showing there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking in the world today.

Brick workers in India

Tackling the global scourge of human trafficking is one goal of Stanford’s WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice. (Image credit: Getty Images)

But global prevalence numbers like these, even if they are reliable, do not provide the kind of information needed to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-trafficking efforts, said David Cohen, director of Stanford’s WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

While high-level statistics are important to raise awareness and galvanize action, they are not enough to solve the problem, Cohen said.

“One of the key gaps in our ability to respond effectively to the global trafficking crisis has to do with the lack of coordinated and reliable data,” said Cohen, who is also a professor of classics in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. “We are far from where we need to be in terms of the kind of coordination and interoperability of data collection we need to address current challenges.”

That’s why his group has created a set of resources to help NGOs and government agencies working in the anti-trafficking field gather data that can better inform policymakers and practitioners about the nature and scope of the problem they face.

There are a lot of data out there but sectors of the anti-trafficking field are not always cooperating in a way that is allowing us to understand that data in aggregate or in comparison.

Jessie Brunner

Senior program manager

“Sectors in the anti-trafficking field are not always cooperating in a way that is allowing us to understand that data in aggregate or in comparison,” said senior program manager Jessie Brunner, who wrote guidelines and best practices for frontline practitioners as well as a white paper offering policy recommendations about gathering information about a hidden and vulnerable population.

Brunner hopes that these resources – written with support from the British Embassy Jakarta and in collaboration with the Human Rights Resource Centre, a nonprofit organization  headquartered at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta – will show that organizing information about the scope of human trafficking is critical to solving the problem.

“After decades of work, we are really just beginning to understand the bounds of human trafficking, but there is still no definitive answer to ‘what is the problem and why is it happening’ in a nutshell,” Brunner said. “That scares me, that after all these efforts and money spent we still aren’t able to figure that out. And we need a solid answer to that question so that we can actually stop the problem, which is the larger objective.”

Bridging work

Brunner said that any given country might have between a dozen and thirty government entities that are working to stop human trafficking.

In the United States, for example, there is a wide range of federal agencies involved in tackling the problem, including an interagency task force, a senior policy operating group and an advisory council, plus a diverse group of federal agencies like the departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. In addition, hundreds of NGOs are working in the anti-trafficking movement, as well as many programs at the state and city levels.

The challenge, Brunner said, is how to get this vast constellation of actors working in tandem with standardized definitions and common approaches.

“When you think of all the people working in the space and how they all have their own caseloads, workflows and data systems, it’s really hard to understand all this information alongside each other, unless data are gathered systematically and rigorously,” she said.

Changing data-gathering practices

Brunner’s reports were informed by nearly 100 in-person interviews she conducted with government and civil society anti-trafficking practitioners in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Brunner asked how data inform their organizational practices, their successes and challenges in gathering data as they carried out critical day-to-day work – from criminal investigations to direct services for survivors – and discovered that the data that exist are often limited, underutilized, of low quality or outdated.

From these observations, the group developed guidelines that offer practitioners a technical baseline – like how to encrypt sensitive data or implement a data-sharing protocol. The guidelines also provide an opportunity to synchronize efforts, all while protecting the privacy and safety of the people being helped.

“With data digitization, it’s much easier to pull together disparate data sources from NGOs and government agencies across different localities – and even countries – and do the analysis of what problems we are seeing, like migration routes and movements or the demographics of trafficking victims and the traffickers themselves,” Brunner said.

Cohen said he hopes that this effort can lead to a common understanding that, in turn, can help people work together to design effective interventions.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-9281, mdewitte@stanford.edu