Disrupting Illicit Supply Networks: NSF Workshop, December 1-2, 2017

Disrupting Illicit Supply Networks: New Applications of Operations Research and Data Analytics to End Human Trafficking

National Science Foundation Workshop

Sponsored by
Operations Engineering Program (ENG) and the Law and Social Sciences Program (SBE)

December 1 – 2, 2017
Washington, DC

Workshop Summary

The Challenge

Social science researchers and advocates believe that if policymakers and abolitionists fully understand how widespread the phenomena of forced labor and sex trafficking are in developing and industrialized countries, public awareness, and political pressure could eradicate it. Undoubtedly, efforts to end modern slavery must involve effective interdiction and judicial sanctions. Nonetheless, the best estimates using sophisticated statistical methodologies find the number of human trafficking victims continuously rising, increased public awareness has not resulted in reduced incidence and prevalence rates. Innovative and timely research strategies are needed to develop approaches that disrupt illicit supply networks to substantially raise the cost of trafficking operations to deter trafficking in human beings.

In recent years, human trafficking research has become primarily focused, if not stuck, on measuring the prevalence of modern slavery and characterizing the nature of, risk factors for, and impact of the activity. Other research has examined policies to remediate the problem, both from the perspective of assessing the efficacy of existing laws and making recommendations for improved remediation. A third research stream has advanced theoretical frameworks for structuring the problem toward identifying evidence-based interventions and legislation. Few studies have approached such illicit networks from a dynamic systems theoretical perspective that allows the social justice challenge to be represented as a mathematical system that can be analyzed in terms of decision variables to help guide, control, and constrain behavioral dynamics toward desired goals.

Solutions to remediate the effect of illicit networks like human trafficking are inherently interdisciplinary, typically involving the fields of criminal justice, social work, social science, economics, healthcare, and law. HT systems are dynamic, they involve exploitation and victimization of some members of the ecosystem, and they commonly involve intersections between licit and illicit activities as well as intersections among several illicit activities. Such systems are also often hierarchical or distributed, nonstationary networks of interconnected activities and participants, and involve collaborative decision making by perpetrators, victims, and/or bystanders. Highly common among such systems is a paucity of data due in large part to the hidden aspects of the crime and the partial observability of the population of interest.

The Opportunity

At this moment, there is increased opportunity to apply advances from the fields of operations research, management science, analytics, machine learning, and data science toward the development of disruptive interventions against illicit networks. Such an extension of the current research agenda for trafficking would move understanding of such dynamic systems from descriptive characterization and predictive estimation toward improved dynamic operational control. OR and data analytics are fields ideally suited to bring this perspective to the study of illicit networks like trafficking.

Workshop Aims

To accelerate the development of disruptive interventions, we propose to convene an interdisciplinary workshop among social science researchers with human trafficking (HT) expertise and OR and data analytics scholars to explore the application of OR methods to social justice problems, specifically around human trafficking. Human trafficking will serve as the grounding example of the problem domain, but the long-term goal is to develop a research agenda that advances methods and identifies applications to disrupt illicit networks more generally, including illegal trafficking in arms, drugs, animals, and human organs.

Workshop aims include:

Aim 1. Examine the structure and nature of illicit networks like human trafficking within an analytic and modeling framework;

Aim 2. Explore the form and complexity of viable, real-world solutions using OR methodologies;

Aim 3. Assess the characteristics and amount of data needed to model and analyze the problem;

Aim 4. Propose a research agenda to guide the efforts of interdisciplinary teams of scholars to develop methods and solutions;

Aim 5. Initiate and facilitate ongoing interactions among workshop attendees and their research collaborators, including junior investigators and graduate students.


We have planned an interactive workshop to explore the nuances and complexities of human trafficking and to develop collaborative relationships with other participants. This is not a “sit and listen” conference. Participants will be involved with iterative rounds of small group brainstorming about various aspects of human trafficking and large group review and collaborative sharing. We have an interdisciplinary group of about 30 scholars attending. We come from diverse backgrounds but as a first approximation, we are here either because of a background in operations research or in human trafficking. And, as we have learned while organizing this workshop, some of us have experience in both areas already. However, by the time the workshop ends, everyone will have experience in both. We’ll spend most of our time brainstorming in small groups or discussing the results of those brainstorming sessions as a larger group. You will meet and have a chance to work with most, if not all, other participants.


Our funding provides limited capacity for attendance by interested scholars and policy makers. If you are interested in attending, please use the link below to apply.

    → Apply now to attend

Tentative Agenda

Disrupting Illicit Supply Networks:
New Applications of Operations Research and Data Analytics to End Human Trafficking
Friday, December 1st
Time Topic/Task Name
8:30 AM Welcome Matt Kammer-Kerwick, UT Austin, Organizer
8:35 AM Introduction Noel Busch-Armendariz, UT Austin, Organizer
8:40 AM Purpose and Goals Georgia-Ann Klutke, NSF, OE Program Director and Sponsor
8:50 AM Keynote Director Patrick Hannon, DHS, Director Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center
9:20 AM Overview of Agenda and Workshop Plan Matt Kammer-Kerwick
9:30 AM Memex: Novel Search and Indexing Technology Targeting HT Wade Shen, DARPA, Memex Program Manager
10:00 AM Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis: Problem Approach Anthony Stefanidis, GMU, Director CINA COE
10:30 AM Break  
10:45 AM Polaris Sara Crowe, Data Analysis Program Director and Sara Crowe, Data Analysis Program Director
11:15 AM Adjacent Problems: Drug Trafficking Model Jon Caulkins, CMU
11:45 AM Ratio Model to Size HT Bilal Khan, Nebraska Lincoln
12:10 PM Business Models for HT Meredith Dank, John Jay
12:35 PM Lunch  
1:35 PM Adjacent Problems: Interdiction of Nuclear Material Dave Morton, Northwestern
2:05 PM Review of Talks Moderator: Matt Kammer-Kerwick
2:30 PM Topic Team Update: Framework Paper Jon, Kayse, Lauren, Matt, Renate, & Tom
3:00 PM Topic Team Update: Extant Databases and Data Sources Bruce, Dixie, Hong, Matt, Melissa, & Noel
3:30 PM Break  
3:45 PM Small Group Breakout Discussions: Approaches, Barriers, & Strategies  
4:15 PM Large Group Discussion: Moving from Approaches, Barriers, & Strategies to Defining Research Problems Moderator: Matt Kammer-Kerwick
5:15 PM Large Group Discussion Moderator: Matt Kammer-Kerwick
5:45 PM Create Strawman Topic List Moderator: Matt Kammer-Kerwick
6:00 PM Adjourn Day 1 Matt Kammer-Kerwick
Saturday, December 2nd
Time Topic/Task Name
9:00 AM Day 1 Recap and Topic List Survey Matt Kammer-Kerwick
9:30 AM Small Group Breakout Discussions: Refining Problems and Subproblems  
10:00 AM Large Group Discussion: Refining Problems and Subproblems Moderator: Matt Kammer-Kerwick
11:00 AM Break  
11:15 AM Large Group Discussion: Set the Agenda and Next Steps Moderator: Matt Kammer-Kerwick
12:15 PM Lunch  
1:00 PM Adjourn Day 1  

Workshop Organizers

Noël B. Busch-Armendariz
As workshop organizer and principal investigator, Dr. Busch-Armendariz has extensive knowledge about human trafficking, having served as the PI on more than 60 externally funded research and training projects, totaling approximately $9 million dollars of research and training funding. Most recently, she led a 2-year project funded by the Texas Governor’s Office to determine the prevalence and economic impact of human trafficking in Texas. The study is structured according to IDVSA’s research, which blends qualitative (such as interviews with human trafficking victims, law enforcement, prosecutors, social services, and coalition and task-force members) and quantitative methodologies (surveys, analysis of existing dataset, etc.). Busch-Armendariz is the Associate Vice President for Research and the inaugural University Presidential Professor at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the founding director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at the School of Social Work. She is a licensed social worker with 24 years of experience and a well-published scholar. She is first author (with co-authors Nsonwu and Heffron) of the first textbook on human trafficking in the country published by Sage Publishers entitled, Human Trafficking: Applied Research, Theory, and Case Studies (2018).

Matt Kammer-Kerwick
As co-organizer and co-investigator, Dr. Matt Kammer-Kerwick has a background in OR and data analytics as well as human trafficking. He is a Research Scientist at the Bureau of Business Research (BBR) at The University of Texas at Austin, and is a co-principal investigator with Dr. Busch-Armendariz on the “Texas Human Trafficking Mapping Project” (Busch-Armendariz, Nale, Kammer-Kerwick, Kellison, Torres, & Nehme 2016) and “Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments, an empirical study of prevalence and perceptions of sexual harassment, stalking, dating/domestic violence, and unwanted sexual contact” (Busch-Armendariz, Wood, Kammer-Kerwick, Kellison, Sulley, Westbrook, Olaya-Rodriguez, Hill, Wachter, Wang, McClain, & Hoefer 2017). He worked for more than 20 years as research-based business strategy consultant before joining BBR and IDVSA to study human trafficking, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other social justice problems. His dissertation focused on near-optimal control of stochastic discrete-event dynamic systems.

For more information, please contact:

Matt Kammer-Kerwick, PhD
Research Scientist
Bureau of Business Research
IC² Institute
The University of Texas at Austin