How Ideas Travel Like Fire–From a Side Project to a $3.6mil DARPA Grant

5 summers ago I was a Fellow at Polaris and hacked together a way to track sex trafficking using Google Reader. At the time, Craigslist appeared to be the dominant market for commercial sex and like today, every Craigslist section has an RSS feed. I sat in my rented room in Northern Virginia after work at Polaris and hooked up the largest metro areas’ Craigslist pages to a new Reader account the same way I would have made an alert for a certain price of a couch. I collected a roughly representative sample, and reported back. I had found about 20,000 ads for sex a day were going up in the US.*

That summer, I recruited Matthew to code a better way to scrape a Craigslist competitor, I proposed and presented our data at the Hopper conference. Here’s the poster.

That would have been it, but I mentioned the idea to a brilliant friend looking for a senior honors thesis project. Emily Kennedy, unlike me, wasn’t content to “hack” together a “rough” approximation. She has a mind for careful research, long-term analysis and a patient even-handedness I admire. She could see long-term potential for the idea, perhaps a collaboration between law enforcement and academia. The fall of her Senior year, she worked with Matthew to revise the code, got space on a server in the School of Computer Science, and collected months and months of data.

Emily presented her important research at Meeting of the Minds, the undergraduate research symposium at Carnegie Mellon. And after graduation, she kept working on it with a team from the School of Computer Science. That was 3 years ago.

This week, we heard that idea–to track sex trafficking through the ads traffickers post–won a multi-year, $3.6 million grant from DARPA. This is all her and her teamI take no credit or blame. Their careful, multi-disciplinary approach, years of data-collection; their slow and fruitful building-up of relationships with law enforcement; their commitment to using the best technical minds and the biggest nerdy hearts to better prevent sex trafficking in our communities have all gotten some well-deserve support and acclaim.

For me, the way this idea traveled over the years reminded me of a moment in a letter on copyright law Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Exactly. Out in the world–unimprisoned by patent or copyright–the idea and the code behind it found the exact right team to grow that seed into something huge, maybe even life-changing for survivors who gain access to help through it. I lost nothing by letting it free. This project could light the way home for many men, women, and trans* individuals who otherwise would not have access to justice and care. In fact, it already has:

Detective Darren Ruskamp of the Modesto (Calif.) Police Department used Traffic Jam [a program the CMU team built] to follow up on a tip about a Nebraska girl, identifying a sex trafficker who was traveling with prostitutes across the Midwest and West and culminating in his arrest. Traffic Jam enabled him to gather evidence by quickly reviewing ads the trafficker posted for several locales. (source)








*If you’re new to this blog and don’t know me: I know not all commercial sex is coercive. I support rights for all workers. I find stigma around commercial sex both anti-feminist and tiresome. I’m happy to fight about that in another thread–this one might be good–but let’s keep the sex work vs sex trafficking wars out here. This is about celebrating my brilliant friend.

Inspirational Quote:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.” — Thomas Jefferson

This is Where I Work (Almost)

2015-01-08 18.04.04

This is the first morning of the Washington state legislature’s 2015 session; last week I started a new job as the Session Aide for Representative Ross Hunter. I don’t actually work in the capitol building, but am mere steps from it. Representative Hunter is chair of the Appropriations Committee, meaning he is in charge of writing the state budget, which makes his office the perfect place to get to know how states choose to use tax money to improve the lives of citizens.

I don’t plan to blog about my work much, just like I rarely blogged about my work for Polaris. It will be the background music of FeelingElephants for the next few months, so here’s fair warning. I will probably be a bit more technical here, more attuned to numbers and charts, more joyous in the exploration of technical details. Mute me until it’s over if graphs give you hives. If you happen to be in Olympia, WA, come say Hi.

Starting today, the legislature will be in a dead sprint until the session closes. I am excited to get started.

Inspirational Quote:

“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”–Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Representative and Her Baby

I am proud to be a member of the Institute for a Democratic Future, a 6-month leadership training program for progressives in Washington state. There was an application process, an interview, and a tense week of waiting but then–I became a Fellow. This was the kickoff weekend, and I got to hear from inspiring speakers with enlivening personal stories and provoking calls to action.

But the moment that stuck with me visually is this one:

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Washington State Representative Jessyn Farrell joined us to give a legislative preview. She brought her son, and for the entire talk–technical bill reviews, why she chose to run, what transit means to a progressive King County–she kept an eye on him, holding him for the second half after he started fussing.

Professionals’ motherhoods have been invisible for much of the 20th century. I benefitted from a Mom who took me with her to work on my sick days, sat me beside her in meetings with the Bishop through her work for the Episcopal Church, showing me what it means to be a woman who changes the world. But since I was that child, I was that example of a great working Mom and kid, I have not seen it very often with my own eyes.

Not seeing leads to not believing. That’s what I was grateful to Representative Farrell. During her presentation, I felt a nub of anxiety on my heart start to wear down. Watching her sooth her son, giving him measuring spoons to play with, talking about ST2 and ST3 and McCleary funding, I too felt soothed. It was a confirmation of something I have known since I was a child, but tend to forget.

It felt good to remember.

Inspirational Quote:

“Americans are fighters. We’re tough, resourceful and creative, and if we have the chance to fight on a level playing field, where everyone pays a fair share and everyone has a real shot, then no one – no one can stop us.” — Elizabeth Warren

Nearly 100 Educators Got Free Notable Women in Computing Card Decks

I designed the Notable Women in Computing Card Deck Kickstarter to send as many decks as possible to educators who couldn’t afford them. So far, over 50% of 2nd edition decks went to teachers for free.

Having suffered survived grant reporting in a past life, I made the process to request a free deck as easy as possible. I had 3 questions aside from contact info:

  • What project could these decks help with?
  • How have you worked in the past to connect girls and women to technical careers?
  • What is your financial need?

The only reporting necessary was to send me a photo of the cards when the arrived. Everyone of the nearly 100 educators who got a deck could have fulfilled his or her obligation snapping a 8KB image of the deck in its envelope and mailing it to me. Instead, I got these (all posted with permission):

IMG_1407_Sabrina“Thank you!”

CS_-deck-o-happiness_Henry Danielson“So Stoked!”

2015-01-07 22.22.42_Lois Langehaug“We are going to start by using them to introduce a new women in computing every class to my 4-8 gr. Technology class.”

IMG_20150106_081712_ Thuzar, Aye“My students and I loved them very much.”

notable_women_Yanaka Bernal, Ed.D. Linden Hill Elementary School Technology“In the attached picture [above], I am in a colleague’s room as we inspect all of the wonderful, notable, computer science women.”

Card1_Deborah Marshall Department Chair Career & Technical Education Granby High School“With February being Career & Technical Education month and March being Women’s History Month, the teachers in my department talked about a few ideas on how to incorporate the cards into lesson plans for the two months.”

IMG-20141116-WA0008[1][No caption, but the picture is from Mutah Knowledge Station in Mutah, Jordan]

Cards_Tammi Scheiring“I only have three girls in my advanced computer science class. They were thrilled with the cards! I don’t think any of us realized the numerous contributions of women to the field of computer science and technology in general.

We were discussing developing a version of “Go Fish” using the cards. For example, do you have anyone who is a Professor? Anyone who worked with the ENIAC? Anyone who has won a Turing Award? etc…”

Here is a map of all of the places we have sent decks–it’s interactive here:


It has been such a joy working with these educators and I’m so glad we were able to connect generous Backers (who personally paid for each free deck) to people who can use the decks in exactly the right way. Such fun.

Inspirational Quote:

“No one is alone.” Stephen Sondheim

#IllRideWithYou and Other Kinds of Great Allyship

In the 4 weeks after 9/11 I wore a headscarf to school. I was 12. I did it because I had heard on the news Muslim women were being shot at for wearing visible symbols of their faith. I thought it was the most unfeminist thing I could think of to attack women for what they were wearing. I have written about this before, about the value of being a red herring.

Me with the red coat and headscarf at my cousin Daniel's baptism in Los Angeles.

Me with the red coat and headscarf at my cousin Daniel’s baptism in Los Angeles shortly after 9/11. Photo Credit: Katy Dickinson.

Today the #IllRideWithYou hashtag is the only positive thing to come out of the horror and confusion of the Sydney hostage crisis. The hashtag is a promise made by non-Muslim Australians to ride public transit with Australian Muslims who (rightly) fear public violence. How do I know it is positive?

Because I have seen a number of my Muslim friends independently post about how it made them feel. How that hashtag and the pictures and actions behind it made them feel safer, gave them ground on which to say: Man Haron Monis does not represent Islam.

It is also my new favorite example of allyship done well. It is an accepted offer of support from people with more power and privilege to people with less power and privilege. It is a visceral show of support at a moment when blood is running hot. It is also a use of technology that–at least in my social circles–has left my some of my friends feeling inspired, safer, and more included. That is what allyship should feel like.

That is the best thing I have seen a hashtag do all year.

Update 2:01am 16/12/14: One of my friends who posted about #illridewithyou online has agreed to let me post his comment here as an example. In posting a link to an article about the hashtag, Yasser Masood Khan said: “There is glimmer of hope that the actions of a few won’t taint the daily lives of many.”

Inspirational Quote:

“Now I’m not Murphy, but I’ve done fine. And I try to help young black guys coming up because those people took chances on me. Eddie didn’t have to put me in Beverly Hills Cop II. Keenen Wayans didn’t have to put me in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Arsenio didn’t have to let me on his show. I’d do the same for a young white guy, but here’s the difference: Someone’s going to help the white guy. Multiple people will. The people whom I’ve tried to help, I’m not sure anybody was going to help them.” — Chris Rock, The Hollywood Reporter, 2014