UC Institute for Prediction Technology

Sean Young, PhD, Addresses Human Trafficking

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1. National Human Trafficking Awareness day is observed on January 11. As a behavioral scientist working with digital and mobile technologies, how do you see social media helping to monitor and predict human trafficking?

Let me start by saying that I’m not an expert in human trafficking. My expertise is in joining psychology and technology to change and predict real-world problems. We typically partner with experts in different areas to make sure that the solutions we come up with will actually be useful to experts in an area like human trafficking.

Take your question on social media. The low-hanging fruit in social media for human trafficking is in using it to change people. We’ve done a lot of work on how our HOPE intervention can be applied to change people’s behaviors. In the context of human trafficking, this model could be applied in a large number of areas like disclosure, prevention of trafficking, and therapeutic treatment and community support. For example, a HOPE-style group could be implemented for victims to talk about how they’ve been affected and how to overcome stigma around disclosure, which could help prevent or mitigate some post-traumatic effects.

Social media could also address human trafficking through its data. People tend to share anything and everything on social media, as we’ve shown in studies at the UC Institute for Prediction Technology. We can find out all kinds of information about people, their psychology, and their motives based on what they share.

Social media is therefore a monitoring tool that can and should be used in public health organizations. How can this tool be used to solve human trafficking issues? We can mine social data to learn people’s real-time views about trafficking, identify people who may have been victims of human trafficking, and even identify or predict hot spots where human trafficking is about to occur.

2. There are multiple agencies working to dismantle trafficking networks and help survivors rebuild their lives. How does your work fit in with that of NGOs and/or the government in addressing the needs of at-risk populations (e.g., drug users)?

Our research has shown that stigma prevents people from seeking help for things, whether those people are people suffering from anxiety and depression, people at risk for HIV who should get tested, or human trafficking survivors who need help to rebuild their lives. We’ve also discovered a way that helps people overcome this stigma, or discomfort, and seek help.

Survivors of traumatic events like human trafficking need to have peer support for a healthy recovery. Peer support can help them overcome fears that they are alone, can give them a road map for treatment, and can give them optimism that things will get better with time.

3. It’s a common misconception that human trafficking is restricted to developing or war-torn countries. How do we empower young people in resource-flush settings like the United States to speak out if they get involved in a trafficking situation?

There are so many ways that people, regardless of their age, can get involved in causes and improving society. Young people are particularly knowledgeable about new technologies and can use these as tools for solving important global issues. For example, I teach a class at UCLA on how to build low-cost technologies to solve important global health problems and reduce poverty. Students come to class with passion in areas like human trafficking, and a dream to address problems in different areas of the world. Together, we show them that very quickly, for example within 24 hours through a hack-a-thon, they can be part of a team that builds technologies that will address those real-world problems. Some of the students have focused on sex trafficking in India or Southeast Asia and building low-cost technologies like mobile apps that can monitor social data to prevent sex trafficking before it occurs. We then show the students how they can continue to work on these technologies and partner with press and local or global organizations to implement their solution.

4. What is the best way to implement a support community for victims? Also, please address whether support communities should be self-governed or provided by an agency.

Support communities don't function well unless they start with people who are already engaged. Just like marketers have learned the importance of gaining “early adopters” of technologies, support communities for victims need to have people who are willing to use the community and play an active role as soon as it emerges. In our Project HOPE study, we spend a lot of time finding the right attributes of these early supporters to make sure they have the mindset needed to stick with things. Getting early supporters to stay involved in the community and not drop out or lose interest is crucial for building the community and motivating others. We make sure that the right people are selected and that they have sufficient training to accomplish this goal.

After identifying and training early supporters, it’s important to keep them motivated and engaged, as they will keep the community going. We establish a lot of contact with supporters in order to keep them motivated and excited about how they are helping others. Over time, in about 12 weeks we’ve found, an organic community will have been built fro scratch. People will happily and willingly volunteer to become leaders to help other victims within the community. We’ve found in our work that these communities continue to grow stronger over time. People continue to find support and improved health from these communities years later.

Dr. Sean Young Discusses Ingestibles

Endoscopy pill, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Endoscopy pill, courtesy of Wikipedia.

1. What future do you see for implantable and ingestible devices?  Is healthcare going to be the main driver or do you see other applications as well?

Implantable and ingestible devices have an exciting future ahead. People want easy ways to solve problems. We know that pills are popular because of that reason. Taking a pill is one of the easiest ways for people to address medical problems and it has revolutionized health behavior and the healthcare business. Ingestible devices will have a similar path, especially as sensors for tracking getting better and people get more comfortable using them.   I think one of the most exciting potential advances in this area will be in medication adherence. Only about 50% of people adhere to their prescribed medication regimens, and this leads to huge health care consequences in deaths and billions of dollars spent that could be used if people were more adherent. Researchers currently struggle with knowing whether people are taking their medications. For example, large clinical trials test whether new medications are effective in reducing disease. Those studies assume that people are taking their medications. They assume that if the drug doesn't prevent and reduce disease that it's because the drug didn't work. But often, it's because people didn't take the medication. This means that a lot of money is being spent on testing drugs and that these drugs appear to not be working, but not because they aren't helpful, but because people aren't taking them.

There are already devices being tested that could monitor whether people are taking medications. There are sensors that can detect when a drug has been ingested. These devices can be used to notify doctors and other people making healthcare decisions with the patient. There are a lot of potential ethical issues with these devices. For example, if lack of adherence to medication causes so many deaths and costs so much money, and if we had the ability to track who was adhering to their medication, then might their be penalties for people who didn't adhere to their prescribed medication?  These types of questions need to be studied and make ingestible devices an exciting area in the future where we need to understand the costs and benefits of these technologies.

Your question also asked about whether these devices would only be used in healthcare. Yes, healthcare is the main driver for these devices right now in order to diagnose and treat disease. But other application areas exist too and are growing. For example, the ingestible pills I mentioned are also being used in areas of cybersecurity

2. You recently tweeted a meeting to discuss ingestibles with Intel.  What contributions are they making in this field?

Intel is a sponsor for the University of California, Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT). We met to discuss our current collaborations, like our Freshman200 study where we attempt to predict student health and well being, and a study we are doing to test how Intel/Basis bands compare to standard tools for measuring fitness and sleep. We also discussed future ideas within wearables, but I unfortunately can not go into the details of those discussions right now.

3. Do you think ingestibles are going to be more accurate at detection human bodily functions and behavior than external devices?  Or are they designed for people who are to lazy to wear wearables?

Ingestibles can add another data point. They can supplement, not replace, existing ways that we detect human behavior and disease. We currently have health care providers talk to patients, have patients complete surveys and answer questions, and have devices like pill counts to measure behavior. But valid, objective measures of behavior are really important to help people make decisions. When doctors ask their patients if they are taking their medications, patients often don't give an accurate response. This is not necessarily because they are lying, but there are a lot of other reasons like they can't remember or there is stigma associated with taking the medicine. By having sensors that can accurately and objectively know whether or not a person took medication, exercised, or stuck to their nutrition routine, we can learn a lot about how to help people. These tools provide another layer of data that can be used to guide decisions about people's health care and other behaviors. And yes, although they're not designed for people who are too lazy, by making something easier to use will make everyone more likely to use it. Cars weren't designed for people who don't want to walk, but they make it much easier for us to get around to place quickly.

4. How would you personally feel about an electronic device traveling in your body?  As a psychologist, can you imagine follow up counseling that would be needed to ensure the success or acceptance of medical applications of such devices?

This gets back to the interesting ethical questions that come with these devices. I discussed the ethical questions associated with technologies in the New York Times piece that was published earlier this month. We've done a lot of research on people's ethical views about technologies. If people think the benefits outweigh the risks, if the technology and people recommending it are intending it will do good, and if people are aware of the risks, then it is generally considered ethical to use. Personally, I wouldn't want a device like that traveling through my body until I had read studies about the long-term effects of us or unless I was told it was necessary for my health and well being.

5. Do you perceive technology as an enabler of public health or as a menace? Certainly your research proves we can easily collect huge amounts of health data.  On the other hand, one could argue that all this convenience leaves a chasm - less urgency in changing ourselves or our environments.

I try to avoid the question of whether or not technology is beneficial for public health, because it's unavoidable. People will continue to build technologies and if these are helpful to people then they'll use them. I see good technologies as tools that can help make things easier for people to do things. These tools can be used for good or bad means, these can be enablers of public health or they can be used as a barriers to public health and well being. When the telephone first came out, as with almost any big technology, people were scared that it would negatively impact our society. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. But it definitely made it easier for people to communicate. Technologies aren't going away but they are making it easier for people to do things. As a psychologist I see my role is to see how I can help people use them for things that will improve their lives and work and make the world a better place.

6. If you could design any implantable device to treat the conditions of digital behavior highlighted in your research, what would it be?  

I'd like to not have to sit at a computer and type. I like to walk while I think. I've tried audio and transcription software to talk while I walk, but this doesn't work as transcription software makes mistakes when detecting language. If something could read from my brain and transcribe that would be a lot more accurate...

I Need a Research Coordinator to Assist My Efforts in Prediction Technology

Looking for a rewarding career in cutting edge technology and big data analytics? The UC Institute for Prediction Technology bridges together researchers across University of California campuses to study how social data from social media, wearable devices, and online technologies can be used to predict real-world events in areas like health and medicine, politics, crime, education, and finance. While our work is broadly focused, most of our day-to-day work is with the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior where we study technologies for health and medicine. Under the direction of the Principal Investigator, the Research Coordinator will be responsible for day-to-day operations of assigned research projects and writing briefs related to research. Organize and monitor research activities, monitor students and volunteers, and maintain study files. Ensure timelines are met. Conduct community outreach efforts. The Research Coordinator will also conduct statistical analyses on the current and future research projects, and write up the research results into manuscripts, briefs, and grant applications.

The ideal candidate will be extremely organized and detail-oriented. Must have a minimum of a Bachelor's Degree and greater than 2 years of research and/or work experience. Demonstrated knowledge and skill in current and emerging internet and social media platforms.

To successfully address these tasks on time, the Project Coordinator must have a broad set of intelligence, be extremely diligent and task-oriented, and an efficient worker. Excellent writing skills required.

Job Qualifications

This position will require the ability to conduct and manage behavioral and clinical research under the direction of the PI, complete tasks according to direction and on time, work with community partners to promote and further research goals, ability to sensitively work with and talk to research participants, ability to conduct statistical analysis (e.g., regression analysis, mixed-effect models), and write up statistical and research results into a completed manuscript. Preferred: Experience or interest in technologies, social media, and website design.