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USF launches a new tool for human trafficking victims in Florida

Two women stand at a podium on a stage.
Aileyahu Shanes
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg launches the BRIGHT Network, which helps human trafficking victims access services.

Human trafficking victims will have better access to resources to help them get back on their feet.

Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking, or BRIGHT Network, aims to streamline the process of connecting human trafficking victims with vital services to help recover and stabilize their lives. Those services include housing, health care, transportation, legal aid and other social services.

Shelly Wagers is the director of BRIGHT. She spoke at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus on Thursday for the launch of the new platform.

"With human trafficking victims,” Wagers said, “if they're in that crisis mode, and they reach out, they'll reach out once, and if they don't get something typically, they're kind of lost."

Currently, Wagers said, those who help victims rely on their “personal Rolodex” and calling each service can be time consuming. The BRIGHT Network provides a centralized database of services vetted by survivors and practitioners in the field.

USF St. Petersburg launches the BRIGHT Network.
Aileyahu Shanes
USF St. Petersburg launches the BRIGHT Network.

Victims will be kept anonymous too by limiting the amount of personal identifying information the system collects. For example, the platform asks only for the first two letters of the first and last name.

"This is going to really help centralize our whole resource directory in the state of Florida,” said Tomas Lares, founder of United Abolitionists to Stop Human Trafficking. “This is something that we've just desperately needed."

Law enforcement and social service workers will be able to access the platform for free. The BRIGHT Network will also collect search data. That will help determine where people are searching for resources and identify gaps, said Wagers.

The reason why it’s taken so long to create a platform like this, said Wagers, is because it’s not profitable for most companies to develop this technology. She added that it’s been difficult to find a single agency to house sensitive data.

The platform was developed by USF researchers as part of its Trafficking in Persons - Risk to Resilience Lab, or TiP Lab. In 2023, the TiP Lab was named the main storehouse in Florida for data related to human trafficking as part of a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Read more: Miami-Dade model for combating human trafficking, state attorney says

Florida is ranked third in the number of human trafficking cases in the United States, according to calls made to the human trafficking crisis hotline.

According to Bloom Tampa Bay, there were 234 reported cases of human trafficking in the Tampa Bay area in 2021. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 781 identified human trafficking cases in the state in 2021.

Lares said this is due to Florida’s population boom and tourism. According to the United States Census Bureau, Florida’s population grew by 1.9% in 2022 and 1.6% in 2023.

“The sporting fans and those coming for entertainment, the majority of them are good people,” he said. “There’s always a few bad apples that are looking for nefarious things to do.

Most services currently in the system are based in the Tampa Bay area. However, the program will expand statewide as more organizations are added, said Wagers.
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Nancy Guan
Aileyahu Shanes
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