Religious congregation donates money to help develop anti-trafficking app

WASHINGTON — Through a $100,000 matching grant the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph has helped the Exchange Initiative and two developers create TraffickCam, an app that helps fight against human sex trafficking.

Fake passports are seen during a press conference at the Immigration Bureau in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 9. Similar passports are used for human trafficking. (CNS file photo | Rungroj Yongrit, EPA)

Fake passports are seen during a press conference at the Immigration Bureau in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 9. Similar passports are used for human trafficking. (CNS file photo | Rungroj Yongrit, EPA)

TraffickCam allows anyone with a smartphone to help fight sex trafficking by uploading photos of hotel rooms when they travel.

It has a database of hotel room images that investigators can efficiently search, according to the Exchange Initiative, which is based in St. Louis. “Features such as patterns in the carpeting, furniture, room accessories and window views are matched against the database of traveler images to provide law enforcement with a list of potential hotels where a victim photo may have been taken.”

Sex traffickers regularly post photos of victims posed in hotel rooms in their online advertisements. Investigators can use these as evidence to find victims and prosecute perpetrators if they can determine where the photos were taken.

The app is available for the iPhone and iPad as well as Android devices and can be downloaded for those devices via the website www.exchangeinitiative.com.

An anonymous donor gave $100,000, matching $100,000 raised by other sources. It was revealed June 20 that the donor was the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, which also is part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ Anti-Trafficking Coalition.

The Exchange Initiative is a social action organization founded by Nix Conference & Meeting Management, which is a leader among meeting planners worldwide helping to end sex trafficking in hotels.

The app was developed by Abby Stylianou, a computer vision researcher, and Robert Pless, a professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University, which is in St. Louis.

“When they (the sisters) called to tell us they were the donors everybody in the office was almost in tears, you never know where people’s generosity comes from,” Molly Hackett, a principal at Nix Conference, told Catholic News Service from St. Louis.

The funding helped pay for the work Washington University did on the app.

Hackett told CNS that Stylianou “saw an article about us (Nix) in the newspaper and through a friend contacted us saying that Washington University had the technology (we’d) need to be able to make the phone app and national database.”

Hackett added that there are three elements to the initiative — the app, a national database and a portal where law enforcement agencies can upload photos of the children they are trying to rescue.

The database runs algorithms that match a million of data points that law enforcement officers receive and interpret the results.

The TraffickCam app allows the user to submit the name of a hotel and upload pictures — up to four at a time. Investigators also can tell if the hotel room has been remodeled by comparing it to earlier photos; it also helps authorities figure out how old a victim might have been when first taken to a certain hotel.

Stylianou told Catholic News Service the hope is that TraffickCam will be used to bring traffickers to justice. She added that trafficking victims can be identified based on hotel rooms but also if can reveal if they were trafficked across state lines.

Those involved in development of the app also hope it can keep the conversation on trafficking going and raise awareness of the issue.

“Having coffee with a friend, one can say, ‘Have you seen this app?’ Because people talk about apps and people share apps in this way, we continue to educate people. If we can generate a national conversation about this issue certainly, we can make headway into the problem.” Hackett told CNS.