HTI Labs fights human trafficking through research, technology, policy

An Omaha-based company using a data-driven approach to combat human trafficking recently raised funding to expand its crucially needed work to support law enforcement, victims and survivors of the practice.  HTI Labs,  a social enterprise corporation combating human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault through data-driven research and tech, has grown far larger than CEO…

Image courtesy of HTI Labs
Image courtesy of HTI Labs

An Omaha-based company using a data-driven approach to combat human trafficking recently raised funding to expand its crucially needed work to support law enforcement, victims and survivors of the practice. 

HTI Labs,  a social enterprise corporation combating human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault through data-driven research and tech, has grown far larger than CEO Crysta Price could have imagined when she first began the project for an undergraduate political science course. 

The company recently secured revenue-based financing to scale its victim empowerment software, PAVE, and to replatform its law enforcement coordination software, LEADS, to meet the needs of anti-human trafficking efforts across the country. This seed round of investment was led by Invest Nebraska, Nebraska Angel Investors and Nelnet. 

Price said revenue-based funding was ideal for HTI Labs because it is a more sustainable solution for social enterprises than equity-based funding. A social enterprise is the IRS designation for a for-profit company whose social mission allows it to receive tax-deductible contributions. The designation eliminated the potential hazard of surviving grant-to-grant as a nonprofit, Price said, with multiple revenue streams ensuring updates to the company’s technology continues unimpeded by the grant cycle.

The upscaled software solutions are intended to more efficiently identify potential victims of human trafficking and connect them with lifesaving services, and to provide law enforcement with more leads on human trafficking in their jurisdictions. 

“What our software ecosystem does is create ongoing, automated data on trafficking in a way that connects the dots in the community,” Price said.

The company’s software helps social service providers, law enforcement, healthcare workers, and others identify and respond to possible trafficking situations. PAVE, for instance, is a web application that facilitates a single screening, assessment and referral process that leads to potential trafficking victims being connected with services; Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services was the application’s first adopter. LEADS, meanwhile, is a database that facilitates investigation by alerting law enforcement to potential trafficking networks; the database is used by the Nebraska State Patrol’s Investigative Services Division.

“People may not notice that a situation in front of them is potentially trafficking, and to be honest, they’re not going to. No person is trained in absolutely every potential issue,” Price said. 

“(Our software) gives them the tools they need to get those red flags in their mind and to know what to do next.” 

The most groundbreaking technological component to this work, Price said, is not just the risk indicators or the trafficking algorithm, but the integration it fosters among a wide variety of organizations and individuals nationwide working on the problem from different angles.

CEO Crysta Price addressing the Nebraska unicameral. Image courtesy HTI Labs

“It’s about figuring out how the community can work together, what their mandatory reporting processes are, and how technology can facilitate ways to make it so that the next step doesn’t fall through the cracks,” she said. “Because in government and in nonprofits, everyone’s overburdened, and things can fall through the cracks very easily.” 

HTI Labs has its roots in the Human Trafficking Initiative developed by Price during her undergraduate studies at Creighton University. Price began working on a grant-funded research project on human trafficking. She wanted to build a mathematical model that would help the intelligence community ascertain which part of the chain that, if eliminated, would yield the greatest reduction in human trafficking and sex slavery.

The big challenge she discovered was a lack of data.

“We didn’t know anything about how much trafficking there is, where trafficking’s at—it’s all kind of anecdotal,” she said. “As a data scientist, that’s a problem.” 

Through collaboration with the anti-trafficking community, she devised a way to apply her data science skills to the issue by collecting a large amount of information and then connecting the dots to develop a sense of what human trafficking networks look like, as well as the number of such networks and their locations. This initial work utilized online advertisements, data science and network analysis to identify potential trafficking networks.

A 2015 grant from the Women’s Fund of Omaha and the Sherwood Foundation officially established Price’s project as the Human Trafficking Initiative. This initial funding allowed Price to focus on filling in some of the data gaps around trafficking. Along the way, she said, the scope of the problem started getting clearer and clearer.

“In order to effectively build technology, I think, on any topic, but especially human trafficking, you need to really deeply be embedded in the work,” Price said. “We became so embedded in the anti-trafficking community that we realized this was more than just a research project. We really didn’t know how big it would get.”

In 2018, the Human Trafficking Initiative spun off into HTI Labs. 

Today, HTI Labs receives revenue for sales of its software and commissioned research while the Omaha Community Foundation handles the company’s grant funding and charitable donations.

HTI Labs takes an ecosystem approach to the issues of sexual violence and exploitation. The company conducts community research projects to gather vital data, then uses that research to build its software solutions, PAVE and LEADS, which work in tandem to centralize data for social service providers and law enforcement agencies, respectively. That software then generates more data, gradually bringing to light an issue that has historically been hidden away.

“Trafficking is similar to terrorism or the arms trade,” Price said. “It’s really not domestic crime in the way we tend to think about it. It operates more like a larger network. So our approach to it needs to be the same. It needs to be proactive.”

While PAVE and LEADS were beta-tested and incubated locally in Nebraska, the company’s technology has also been adopted by agencies in Illinois, California and Colorado. Price said HTI Labs is actively reaching out to other states as well.

In addition, research generated by the company is leading to substantive policy changes. In March 2018, a bill written by HTI Labs staff, in coordination with the Women’s Fund of Omaha, Nebraska State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks and others, passed the unicameral without a single “No” vote. LB 1132 establishes post-conviction relief for victims of human trafficking, allowing them to clear their names and have their criminal records expunged.

“If you’re a victim of human trafficking, you by definition are engaged in prostitution, which is illegal,” Price said. “A lot of times you see people get arrested for that. And it’s really hard to tell that they are victims because of all the manipulation involved, so they have these long criminal records that keep them from finding housing and employment. This law clears all that for them.”

HTI Labs is currently working with the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence to further study the effects of COVID-19 on human trafficking, according to Sara Lobo, the coalition’s bilingual coordinator. 

While the scope of human trafficking is still not yet fully known, Price said HTI Labs will continue generating data, providing technology solutions, and writing and supporting policy that helps eliminate the problem piece-by-piece while helping victims clear their names.

To reach the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline, call (888) 373-7888 or text HELP to BEFREE (233733).

 

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