Friday, October 13, 2017

Brilliant Lecture by Dr. Renata Konrad on Opportunities to Address Human Trafficking Using Operations Research and Analytics

Today we had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Renata Konrad of the Foisie School of Business at WPI in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series. This speaker series is organized by the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter with my full support.

Dr. Konrad's brilliant lecture was on: Opportunities to Address Human Trafficking Using Operations Research and Analytics.

After an introduction by Deniz Besik, the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter President, Dr. Konrad began her talk, which took place in the Integrated Learning Center at UMass Amherst. She emphasized that human trafficking is a global illicit business with estimates of profits of $150billion. It knows no national boundaries and probably is taking place in your town.
She noted that it is important to understand the demographics - who, what, where is being exploited and believes that there is a growing awareness of human trafficking . The associated challenges are numerous: the victims are hidden; often "hidden in plain sight" and with limited societal interfaces. Traffickers are covert, part of hidden networks, with dynamic adaptation, and it is difficult to obtain evidence against the perpetrators and to successfully prosecute them. Evidence may be "ambiguous."

At the same time there are opportunities for operations research and analytics in terms of designing prevention campaigns and identifying best resource allocation for media exposure; assisting in survivor detection and victim identification; searches for abnormal patterns in unrelated data that perhaps machine learning can assist with. I also very much appreciated that she highlighted that extending disaster preparedness approaches may be very useful in combating human trafficking.

Human trafficking is different from standard product supply chains, which calls for new theories. Unlike food or medicines that are consumed, here we are dealing with a "renewable commodity" Another challenge is that the data is incomplete and hard to obtain and often organizations that are involved in combating human trafficking are reluctant to share data with one another. In terms of network interdiction, the agencies may even have possibly different objectives and be non-coordinating with one another.

I was delighted to hear Dr. Konrad mention not only networks and network interdiction but that she also noted that there are opportunities for modeling in terms of illustrating the potential of interagency cooperation using game theory. We had shown the benefits of cooperation in a different context in a recent paper that we published on cybersecurity with Shivani Shukla in the European Journal of Operational Research.

Spending on combating human trafficking is not proportionate to the scale of the problem. At the same time, policymakers want concrete quantifiable evidence as to the effectiveness of proposed policies to address human trafficking based on return on investment. To measure the effectiveness of anti-trafficking policies is an important operations research problem in itself.

Dr. Konrad mentioned work in this area that she is involved in from New Haven to Nepal. She then spoke on two specific projects that she is involved in: 1. working on designing awareness campaigns using a production function objective and 2. selecting locations of rehabilitative shelters in the US (right now there are only 700) and there are 34,000 calls to the hotlines annually. Here, again, identifying an appropriate objective function is crucial in order to capture the associated benefits versus the costs. The latter work she is doing with her WPI colleague, Professor Andrew Trapp, and Dr. Kayse Maass, who is a postdoc at the Mayo Clinic. An excellent article by them on human trafficking analysis can be found on the INFORMS website.

Dr. Konrad was wonderful in answering numerous questions from the audience and also generated many research ideas - even establishing linkages between epidemiology and human trafficking as well as possible incentives based on research in HIV. It was great to have my Engineering colleagues Professor Erin Baker and Professor Chaitra Gopalappa in attendance, with their super questions. Dr. Gopalappa has done a lot of work in HIV prevention and modeling.

We took a photo of Professor Konrad with some of the audience members after her talk and presented her with a token gift from the Isenberg School of Management. Thanks to colleagues and students from the College of Engineering and the Isenberg School who came as well as other guests from outside UMass. I was delighted to even see an Isenberg undergraduate in the audience from my Transportation and Logistics class!
I then had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Konrad at a lunch at the University Club at UMass Amherst.
Deniz Besik also conducted an interview with Dr. Konrad in the Supernetworks Lab, and we will let you know when it gets posted.

We thank Dr. Konrad for taking time out of her very busy schedule to educate us on a topic of profound importance in which operations research and analytics can assist in fundamental ways, some of which have yet to be discovered.