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

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