MIT students, Guardian Group hold 'hackathon' in Bend to help st - KPTV - FOX 12

MIT students, Guardian Group hold 'hackathon' in Bend to help stop sex traffickers

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A group of students from MIT flew across country to help combat sex trafficking in Oregon. The students teamed up with the Guardian Group for a three-day "hackathon" event to help bring down traffickers.

To find a solution to any one problem, MIT students say they were taught to boil a problem down to its basic components. When that problem is sex trafficking, things get to be more complex.

The group of students flew from Massachusetts to Bend to meet up with the Guardian Group, a team of retired officers and veterans who utilize their military background to combat human trafficking in Oregon.

Together both groups are working to study the illegal online industry more deeply.

"At MIT I have access to one of the highest horsepower technology hubs in the world," said MIT student Tony, who asked FOX 12 to use only his first name.

Because the work they're doing is sensitive, the group of MIT students are asking FOX 12 to protect their identities. Their goal is to help members of the Guardian Group figure out a faster way to track online traffickers.

"These guys can come in with this science and data based background, and we're trying to figure out how to take what is available in the data that already exists and boil it down to usable data that law enforcement can take," said Jeff Tiegs, Chief Operating Officer of the Guardian Group.  

FOX 12 was allowed into the groups so called "war room" while students participated in a three-day hackathon event to uncover solutions. The group is trying to develop some sort of algorithm and causal model to help members of the Guardian Group sort through the thousands of online trafficking ads that pop up daily.

"A lot of what we're doing is just literally time consuming, we're physically searching ads and Facebook pages for clues of what we think trafficking indicators are, and we've got automate that," said Tiegs.

The team says because they're pulling information from public ads they're doing nothing illegal. They're simply working to streamline a process.

"It's a giant volume, the hacking is how you take that immense amount of information and turn it into something meaningful. I have a structure for the model, but in a matter of hours he's able to pull data that would take me weeks and months, these guys do it overnight," said Tiegs.

Students say it's just the first step in their work to address the issue of sex trafficking. Work that begins in Oregon and will be brought back to the East Coast for further study.

"We're trying to come up with a clear and concise requirement statement to take back to our classmates and researchers at MIT to offer up to them," said Tony.

The group hopes what they've uncovered will one day help bring down trafficking operations.

"Aside from it being horrible, to the point of not being able to articulate it, one of the biggest problems is the head in the sand, hear and see no evil, out of sight out of mind mentality," said Tony. "So hopefully we can help with that as well."

The Guardian Group says they plan to share the information they have compiled with law enforcement agencies across the state so they can work together to fight human traffickers.

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