UNT design research graduate student develops app to combat human trafficking

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- A University of North Texas design research graduate student created a smartphone app that aims to help people -- especially truck drivers -- report incidents of human trafficking.

Lisa Mercer developed Operation Compass with the goal of compiling a database that will automatically collect and sort the incidents.

The Dallas-based non-profit organization Mosaic Family Services will soon begin using the app to allow the general public to report incidents of all types of human trafficking. Case managers would follow up on incidents by reporting to law enforcement and/or providing shelter, counseling or legal services.

As Human Trafficking Awareness Month takes place in January, Mercer's goal is to reduce the number of sex and labor human trafficking incidents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She's already gotten attention from design researchers. Mercer will serve as keynote speaker to "Unfrozen," the Swiss Research Network symposium in Brienz, Switzerland, Jan. 28-31.

Mercer got the idea for the app when she saw a poster for the organization Students Against Trafficking and Slavery in Curry Hall at UNT. As she researched the subject on the Internet, she realized that the Dallas-Fort Worth area had one of the highest concentrations of human trafficking in the U.S., especially among children.

"I wondered how I could help," she said. "How could I apply my knowledge as an interaction designer and design researcher to help victims of human trafficking? The only way to find an answer to this question was to conduct more research."

She consulted with her advisors – Michael Gibson and Keith Owens, both associate professors of communication design in the College of Visual Arts and Design's Design Research Center.

Students in the design research program identify possible solutions to problems and collect data by working with a variety of sources, including social scientists, business experts and users, to see if one of them will work. The solution could be in the form of an app, website or action plan, Owens said.

In her research, Mercer found that the National Hotline for Human Trafficking gets 32,000 calls a year, but only 300 of those come from truck drivers.

She talked to more than a dozen truck drivers and asked them what they saw. One trucker saw a girl – no more than 14 years old – who was knocking on drivers' doors on a rainy night. But truckers said they were often hesitant to report what they see because they couldn't remain anonymous and/or they could be implicated in the commission of a crime.

Mercer developed the app so its fields auto-populate the time, date and location of an incident of trafficking. An auto-record feature allows the truck driver to report their findings without using their hands. 

With Mosaic Family Services in Dallas, she is working on a prototype that can be "usability tested" for five to 10 people within the next two months. Usability testing allows a small group of people – users – to interact with a prototype and its designers so that necessary changes or improvements can be changed.

Bill Bernstein, deputy director for the non-profit organization, said the app could help because human trafficking is sucha hidden crime.

"As soon as we talked to Lisa, it really seemed to make a lot of sense and appeared to be something that could prove very beneficial in the world in which we work," he said.

Mercer also is working with national organizations to enable them to use the app, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Mercer has worked for 15 years as a graphic designer in Arizona and Colorado. She is expected to graduate in December from CVAD's department of design with a MFA in design research and will then work as an adjunct professor at CVAD in January. She would eventually like to be an interaction design professor.

She already has presented her research at the 8th International Conference on Inclusive Design at the Royal College of Art in London in August and the Irish Design Research Conference Ireland in May.

"I would hope for this app to be effective means to combat human trafficking," she said. "If that is successful, that means the most."

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