Deciphering and disrupting the social, spatial and temporal systems behind transnational human trafficking: a data science approach

Principal Investigator

Dr Ella Cockbain

Research Institution

University College London (UCL)

Project Summary

Human trafficking is often described as one of the world’s largest, fastest growing and most lucrative organised crimes. For all the bold rhetoric, there is woefully little scientific evidence on the scale, nature, distribution, organisation and evolution of this phenomenon. Human trafficking is both a complex social issue and an emotive one, often involving very severe forms of exploitation.

Many millions of pounds are spent each year trying to combat trafficking. Without a strong evidence base, there is a very real risk that myths, stereotypes, assumptions and hidden agendas step in to fill the gaps. Ill-informed measures can be costly, ineffective and even actively detrimental to those they seek to assist. Consequently, it is vital to invest in high-quality empirical research in this field.

The ultimate vision of our project is to advance how data are used in analysis and intervention around human trafficking. Our large-scale study will include trafficking of both adults and children for various purposes, including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and other forms of labour exploitation. We will focus on three key dimensions to the complex systems involved in trafficking: social structures, geographical space and time. We will systematically examine the social networks in which traffickers and victims are embedded, identifying key roles and vulnerabilities. We will determine where elements of the trafficking process occur, mapping hotspots (places where crime concentrates), profiling key locations and examining flows. We will analyse patterns and trends in trafficking and their evolution over time. Throughout the research, we will explore the implications of our results for deterring, detecting and disrupting trafficking, increasing resilience and reducing harms.

Our team of UCL researchers is collaborating with key partners Unseen, the National Crime Agency (NCA), Home Office and Stop the Traffik. We are also working with three outstanding international academic advisors: Professors Aili Malm, Sheldon Zhang and Wim Bernasco. Our partners have facilitated access to key national datasets central to the research: the Modern Slavery Helpline (Unseen) and the National Referral Mechanism (NCA and Home Office). We also have a unique research dataset on trafficking networks, generated in a previous ESRC-funded study with the National Crime Agency. The project is timely, important and innovative, drawing on methods rarely possible in this field due to shortages of data and skills.


The research will generate vital evidence on the people, places and communities affected by trafficking, advancing understanding of this complex phenomenon and identifying pinchpoints for intervention. Our results should be useful to a wide range of stakeholders including civic society, law enforcement, diverse government agencies, independent advisors and commissioners, transnational organisations, businesses, individuals and communities affected by trafficking and the general publics. In building a more data-driven knowledge base on human trafficking, we hope to support evidence-informed, just and nuanced policy and practice in the UK and beyond. Ultimately, anything our work can do to support better prevention and early intervention is likely to play a small but important part in mitigating the serious social, economic and health impacts caused by trafficking.

Contact Information

For further information, please email Ella at (Twitter: @DrEllaC)