UNODC Announces Winners of Canada's "DataJam Against Exploitation"


Vienna (Austria) 7 June 2021

A web application that can support police investigations into human trafficking rings has taken the top prize at the recent “DataJam Against Exploitation” competition.

The team behind the winning entry, ‘Buyer Resist’, consists of five young professionals from British Columbia, Canada who were among 75 participants of 16 different nationalities to take part in the online technological innovation event.

Over eleven days in May, they competed online to develop technology-based solutions to identify and protect victims of human trafficking and support prosecutions of this crime.

“We know that the perpetrators are using technology to enslave, traffic, exploit and abuse millions around the world, and we believe we should use technology to get ahead of them and stop them in their tracks,” says team leader, Brian Rae.

The event was hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Canada’s International Centre for Prevention of Crime (ICPC), in cooperation with the technology company IBM and the Colombia-based non-governmental organization Fundación Pasos Libres.

Participants, which included university students and recent graduates from 19 higher education institutions, had access to IBM tools and technologies.

Mentoring was provided by UNODC’s anti-human trafficking experts and law enforcement officials, survivors of human trafficking and representatives from financial and technological institutions were also part of the contest’s training programme.

"The work presented by the teams was very impressive," says Teodora Mihaylova, Analyst at ICPC and a member of the DataJam jury. "Not only was their work very professional, but the solutions presented were conceptualized to an almost operational level," she adds.

During the competition, the winning Buyer Resist team, which includes a software developer, a computer scientist, a software engineer, a 3D animator and a law student, collected data from over 70,000 web-based escort advertisements from around Canada.

"We wanted to gain as much information as possible from sources that are freely circulating like escort listing sites, and our assumption is that sex traffickers are not very creative and reuse text across multiple escort ads to advertise the services of their victims," explains their team leader, Brian Rae.

Using a tool known as a ‘web scraper’, the winning application was able to compare the information contained in advertisements to find multiple postings with identical or similar text in different parts of Canada.

This suggested that there was not an individual sex worker behind the advertisement, but possibly a trafficker who is part of an organized criminal network and forcing a victim to work in the commercial sex industry.

“Our technology can scrape thousands of ads to find indicators of trafficking. Then the application organizes this information and makes it easily available to police investigators. We hope such information could be used to rescue victims and prosecute offenders,” explains Brian Rae.

Human traffickers have integrated technology into their business model at every stage of the process, says Martin Hemmi from UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section.

He adds: “At the same time, technology has a crucial role to play in combatting this crime. This is why events like this DataJam in Canada, which brought together international, talented young people to develop innovative tech-based solutions, are essential."

Jennifer Roynon, Corporate Social Responsibility Lead, IBM Canada, says IBM has a long history of using technology and talent to “address social issues and create a positive change in the world”.

“IBM has been using cloud and AI technologies to identify patterns of activity to disrupt human trafficking and together with the organization Stop The Traffik developed the Traffik Analysis Hub, a global counter-trafficking resource with over 80 members,” adds Ms. Roynon.

Other DataJam winners were a team of data scientists from Scotiabank who specialise in anti-money laundering analytics and came second. Third place went to four graduates from the Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms. 

The prizes in the DataJam Against Exploitation competition include monetary awards for the three winning teams and an opportunity to present their solutions in an upcoming UNODC conference.

IBM will also provide access to further skills development for all DataJam participants through its SkillsBuild platform.

This was the sixth event of its kind that UNODC has organized together with IBM and Pasos Libres. The next DataJam takes place this September and will focus on forced labour in supply chains.

UNODC thanks the Government of Canada for making this event possible.


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