Jennifer Musto Talk

Jennifer Musto Talk

Two weeks ago, the Caltech Feminist Club was honored to co-host a visiting speaker, Dr. Jennifer Musto, for a talkaboutthe technological methods used to combat sex trafficking. Dr. Musto is a professor of Gender Studies at Wellesley College, and is on sabbatical in LA at the moment, and graciously accepted our invitation to speak. The Feminist Club co-hosted with the Student-Activism Speaker Series (SASS, an organization run through the Caltech Y). About 60 people, both students and community members, attended the talk. It was an amazing turnout for a fantastic talk!

Dr. Musto has been studying trafficking in the US for years, and has just written a book about how the use of technology in the fight against sex and labor trafficking is both helpful and harmful. Dr. Musto gave us a thorough overview of both the scope and content of the trafficking problem in the US (potentially millions of victims, mostly in forced-labor situations). She also introduced the audience to a rather shocking idea: that the use of technology, and in particular data science, was not currently up for the job of solving this problem.

In particular, Dr. Musto described several data-driven tools that are out there right now, some created by concerned, technology-oriented citizens, that are used to help concerned groups or police officers identify victims of trafficking. These tools include web-scrapers (web-trawling bots) that work on sites like Back Page and Craigslist, looking for information that both indicates that sex trafficking is going on, and provides location information so that victims can be “rescued.” Dr. Musto reminded us that not only is sex trafficking not the largest trafficking problem in the US (however, it disproportionately receives almost all anti-trafficking funding and programming in the country), but not all people involved with the sex trade are victims of trafficking. She introduced us to nuances about the topic that definitely could not be parsed with a simple web-scraper.

To be honest, the idea that technology couldn’t solve a problem was mind-blowing to the audience (myself included). I feel like we are always taught, especially at Caltech, that what we are learning and the work we are doing will go on to solve huge problems, and that every problem in the world is solvable with the correct application of science. It was pretty shocking to hear that, although multiple organizations exist for combating trafficking using technology, no one had yet cracked the code. That’s not to say that a complex issue like human trafficking cannot be combated using data science or other technological means, just that no one has done it yet. But of course, as Dr. Musto told us, to solve a complex problem involving lots of people and lots of choices, a significant amount of knowledge about the nuances of the problem is required. This knowledge must include information about the people involved, their choices and options, the context of their situation, and other information that a bot can’t easily collect. Human trafficking is a deeply human problem, and yet most technological efforts to “solve” it don’t take that humanity into account.

Her talk inspired me. What other problems are we trying to solve with code that are more complex than we assumed? How can we educate ourselves to this depth about every problem we try to solve, so that we know if we are overlooking important nuances?

I hope to organize more talks like this for the Feminist Club in the future, and perhaps take my inspiration from Dr. Musto’s lecture and do something big with it…stay tuned!