Spotlight on Emily Pries: Stopping Human Trafficking
Every now and then in our society we hear about someone who inspires us greatly and creates something amazing for a more than worthy cause. Emily Pries is one of those people. A US coder, who along with being extremely well respected in her own field, as well as a key member of the Girls Who Code movement, also instructed young people on the Summer Immersion Program hosted at AppNexus’ New York headquarters in 2017. Little did her students know that they had something in common with their brilliant teacher. While they worked tirelessly coding away on their end-of-program CS Impact Projects, she was also busy working on something that would have a life-changing impact in her field and far beyond.
The solution she created through coding has had a huge impact on the widespread issue of human trafficking. It takes the form of a text-based service that helps immigration departments and the police detect and crack down on human trafficking situations, which is now used by the New York City Port Authority as well as several others the world over. But how did the app come about?
The opportunity arose for Pries to begin work on her tool while mentoring on a fellowship program for college students who are studying alongside working internships in the tech world. The program, hackNY had been around for 7 years or so when Pries began working on her human trafficking coding. Pries was in a fortunate position as she noticed that there were several very gifted student developers who all had the drive and positivity around doing something to make a difference in some way. All that was needed was some extra time, energy and development skills and Pries felt something could be constructed swiftly. By chance the fellowship program was working with a top developer Rob Spectre at the time who was working with Twilio, but now works with the Human Trafficking Response Unit for the District Attorney of New York. Coincidence? We think not.
When Pries came up with the idea after a chance conversation with Spectre, she explains that she had no idea how bad things were with human trafficking in Manhattan. “I’ve been telling people it’s the greatest city in the world, and of course I know there are issues, but I was shocked by the degree to which human trafficking is alive and well in the city of New York.” She explained in a recent interview.
The extent of the problem in Manhattan and surrounding areas included systematic manipulation techniques, as well as a genuine disconnect between the people who care and want to make a difference. Many feel like human trafficking is a bad entity, but many take the ‘not in my backyard’ approach as they feel like it is only a problem in more developing nations, but that is not the case in the slightest. Pries initially found it hard to find where to target 1st and which aspect of the problem should be prioritised. “It was pretty jarring to recognize that there are things that everyday people can do to prevent trafficking, that we don’t do because either we don’t know or we don’t care.
In the world of human trafficking, the traffickers themselves will often post online ads online in a bid to hire escorts. Many of these typically include the same phone number in all the ads, which is where Pries saw her opportunity to strike. She and her team developed a service which allows the police to send a phone number via a text message, and then a subsequent automatic response with information about how frequently the number appears in the online ads in order to flag up a potential case of trafficking. The idea behind this is that if the police confiscate a suspect mobile phone, they should instantly be able to distinguish whether or not it is a phone linked to any form of trafficking.
Compared to the previous process, which required an officer to call a case in, in the hope that someone would be in the office to answer, after which the database would be pulled off and cross checked. A potentially lengthy process, by which time the perpetrator(s) would be long gone. Pries explained after the service’s launch that she hopes they will be particularly effective in Port Authorities as this is usually where teenage runaways groomed by traffickers enter the city via bus. The traffickers prey on teenage girls on social media and offer to pick them up from the station, so this is the first area of the trafficking process Pries focused on when developing the service. Plainclothes police officers will check in with teenagers entering the city alone and ask who is picking them up and text the service immediately in an attempt to prevent the girls from entering the horrible world of human trafficking.
In terms of technical difficulties in the build, Pries says it was a relatively straightforward process, to the extent that someone could have built it with only the skills they learned had they been on the Summer Immersion Program. Things have gone full circle you could say! The more difficult part she explains was choosing which are of the human trafficking problem the technology where the service would make the greatest change. This is where Pries group of young girl developers really came into their own. They could really relate to the girls caught up in human trafficking, as they are not a million away from themselves in age, demographic and background, so they could easily put themselves in their shoes when developing the service.
Pries explains that “I think that’s something that young girls are really, really good at, and we haven’t gone a good job as a society of valuing that. I think a lot of girls, when they approach technology, say, “This is great. I can use this, because I’ve been trying to do [blank] and it takes too much time.” She feels that of all her most exciting opportunities in tech have thus far been with people who have expertise in a certain field due being able to connect to the problem or topic at hand and share it with others in order to make something of it. In this case it was with the teenage girl developers on the Summer Immersion program. This gave Pries an idea which has now changed the world of female coding for the better.
Girls Who Code
Pries subsequently joined the Girls Who Code movement which is now a vast network of like-minded females who are passionate about coding. She first decided to become an instructor after her success with working with female coders on the human trafficking project, but also as she felt like a lot of the challenges facing Silicon Valley corporations will not simply be solved with code, but the best way to keep improving tech and moving with the times is to bring more females into the conversation. “It is probably the best, most effective way to improve our society’s problem-solving capacity, so joining Girls Who Code, which already had good momentum behind it, seemed like the absolute least I could do."
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