Baylor Business Professor, Alumna Earn National Science Foundation Grant to Combat Human Trafficking
$250,000 grant will fund formation of interdisciplinary team, co-led by Baylor Information Systems Professor Stacie Petter
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By Derek Smith, Baylor University Marketing & Communications
NOTE: January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month
LISTEN: Dr. Stacie Petter discusses her research on the Baylor Connections podcast.
WACO, Texas (Jan. 27, 2021) – In the fight against human trafficking, law enforcement officers are forced to navigate many technological challenges to break up illicit networks and rescue individuals caught up in human trade. A Baylor University professor and a former student, now a faculty member at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), are working to address many of those challenges with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Stacie Petter, Ph.D., Ben H. Williams Professor of Information Systems and Business Analytics in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business, and Laurie Giddens, Ph.D., MSIS '02, Ph.D. '17, assistant professor of computer management and information systems at SIUE, earned a $249,998 NSF planning grant to form an interdisciplinary team that will analyze obstacles and propose solutions and training to empower law enforcement and other organizations to more effectively combat human trafficking in their communities.
"Our charge in this grant is to focus on understanding three important questions, which will allow us to better support the individuals and organizations who fight human trafficking," Petter said. "First, how do criminals use information technology in the course of criminal activity? Second, how is law enforcement using technology to find criminals? And finally, how can we create interventions and resources to help law enforcement be proactive in identifying criminal activity and addressing these problems?"
Petter and Giddens will form and lead a team of individuals from law enforcement, the legal system, information systems, engineering, social sciences, economics, the non-profit sector and more to eliminate siloed understanding across industries and disciplines.
Serving the lost and forgotten
The roots of their current efforts began from a conversation in which Petter and Giddens discovered a shared passion to serve victims of human trafficking. Giddens was pursuing her Ph.D. in Baylor's department of information systems and business analytics, and Petter had recently joined the Baylor faculty. In addition to their discipline, they shared the experience having volunteered with organizations that served human trafficking victims and survivors.
"I've always had a place in my heart for people who tend to be lost or forgotten in society," Petter said. "Unfortunately, people who are victims of human trafficking often end up being disregarded because of their experiences. Laurie and I discovered our shared interest and often thought we'd like to work together in some way to conduct research on human trafficking."
After receiving her doctorate at Baylor, Giddens joined the SIUE faculty. On a long road trip from her native Louisiana to Illinois, she listened to a podcast featuring a Dallas-based nonprofit organization called DeliverFund. The organization's founder, Nic McKinley, served in the CIA and U.S. Special Operations before forming DeliverFund, with a mission to end human trafficking.
"He spoke about technology, artificial intelligence and providing tools for law enforcement to utilize in their investigation," Giddens said. "What really captured my attention were the ways they use advanced technologies to conduct human trafficking investigations. I called Stacie and she was also excited about them. We reached out to DeliverFund and asked to collaborate on a research project. We have been working with them since."
Since that initial connection in April 2019, Petter and Giddens searched for external funding opportunities to amplify that work, a search that culminated in the competitive NSF grant award.
Prior to receiving the award, their work with DeliverFund and additional research revealed a number of challenges that impede law enforcement from greater success. Obstacles ranged from lack of time and attention due to the prevalence of other types of crime, to lack of technology, to lack of understanding on how to use technology. Compounding the challenge for law enforcement is the illicit nature of human trafficking networks where change occurs rapidly.
"These cases are very complex," Petter said. "Human trafficking investigations require a great deal of resources for law enforcement agencies. Victims get moved from place to place, so you have to work across jurisdictions. Many times, these cases can be difficult to prosecute. We can use existing technologies to help us discover signs of human trafficking and create an evidence chain that requires less reliance on a victim's testimony."
Part of the success of the grant proposal came from their team-based approach and focus on the utilization of existing technologies. The team formed through the grant will analyze existing technology and training methods to help departments use resources that are currently available and effective when used properly. DeliverFund has provided free training to departments and will bring that insight to combine with Petter and Giddens' information systems expertise. They will form a team of 20 to 30 people to focus on the needs, opportunities and challenges faced by various stakeholders, including police departments, district attorneys, software engineers and nonprofits, and to leverage their combined institutional knowledge in their disciplines or industries.
As a planning grant, the NSF award funds 18 months of initial collaboration and analysis, after which Petter and Giddens will provide the results of their work to apply for a larger grant to fund the installation of their recommendations. Alongside the opportunity for future research and even greater funding the grant makes possible, a tangible outcome in the shorter term will be training materials available for law enforcement to use in their communities.
For business school faculty like Petter and Giddens, externally-funded grants are a rare source of funding.
"Grant funding is not common in schools of business, and NSF funding is even rarer," said Jonathan Trower, Ph.D., department chair and associate professor of information systems and business analytics. "Even though the School of Business has not typically relied on grant funding for most of our research, we want to do our part to elevate Baylor's R1 aspirations. This grant is the largest externally funded research project so far in our department, and it's great to see Drs. Giddens and Petter working together to address this important societal issue."
Although such grants are uncommon, Petter and Giddens see a natural fit to their discipline, which studies how and why people use technology, and how to use it more effectively.
"It's exciting, as business faculty, to make a difference that's about more than the bottom line," Petter said. "There's been more of a focus on responsible research that can inform policy, address societal challenges and make a positive impact on our communities, and we're excited to do that here."
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At Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, top-ranked programs combine rigorous classroom learning, hands-on experience in the real world, a solid foundation in Christian values and a global outlook. Making up approximately 25 percent of the University's total enrollment, undergraduate students choose from 16 major areas of study. Graduate students choose from full-time, executive or online MBA or other specialized master's programs, and Ph.D. programs in Information Systems, Entrepreneurship or Health Services Research. The Business School also has campuses located in Austin and Dallas, Texas. Visit baylor.edu/business for more information.