In the News

July 25, 2017

Making a difference one app at a time

ICS students work with Million Kids to develop mobile apps to help with the fight against cyber predators.

What difference can an app make in the life of a child? The answer is everything.

One million children are sex trafficked throughout the world every year. While a child lured away by an online predator is a parent's worst nightmare, for Opal Singleton, president and CEO of Million Kids, the scenario is a horrifying reality.

"Human trafficking, social media exploitation and ‘sextortion’ are common occurrences today,” said Singleton. “Kids and teens will get an instant message or a Snapchat message; pretty soon they'll be building a relationship. The individual becomes loyal and doesn't realize they are dealing with a predator until it is too late.”

For the last nine years, Singleton has served the public — battling the bad guys — through Million Kids, a nonprofit that combats human trafficking. She serves as the training and outreach coordinator for the Riverside County Sheriff's Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and has authored the book Seduced: The Grooming of America's Teenagers, which examines real cases of how predators use social media and online gaming to access, groom, recruit and exploit teenagers into sex trafficking, sextortion and exploitation. Singleton hosts a weekly global online interactive human-trafficking training program called "Exploited: Crimes Against Humanity" on VoiceAmerica’s Variety channel that provides free human-trafficking education to 170 countries. She also broadcasts a radio show every Saturday called "Exploited: Crimes and Technology" on AM590 that reaches much of Southern California. Her passion ignites a simple philosophy: If the bad guys are harming a million children each year, then the good guys must help even more.

The fight against child sex trafficking is certainly not one a single person can win; it is a battle that requires the support of many partners, including local law enforcement, community organizations and concerned citizens, such as UCI student Irish Marquez. The issue has become deeply personal for the recent ICS graduate, who, alongside fellow UCI team members Nicholas Hoyt, Arameh Giragosian, Dori Mouawad, Jacqueline Welham and Calvin Poon, worked with Singleton to develop the "Million Kids Education Application" for their informatics senior design project class.

ICS students Jacqueline Welham, Nicholas Hoyt, Irish Marquez, Calvin Poon, Arameh Giragosian and Dori Mouawad worked with Opal Singleton to develop the "Million Kids Education Application."

"I had the privilege of working with an awesome team, receiving guidance from our amazing adviser, Informatics Professor [Darren] Denenberg, and being provided this opportunity by UCI,” said Marquez. “I am truly grateful for this experience and opportunity."

The app will be used to educate both parents and children on the everyday risks and dangers associated with their actions that could lead them into the dark world of sex slavery and human trafficking. "This has been such a unique opportunity," said Singleton. "UCI is our first partner to have created an app. Other universities we work with do educational outreach, but this is the first time we've taken on a technical project. I've been so impressed."

The most difficult aspect of developing the application was taking the different user aspects into consideration. Since the app is to be used worldwide, highly subjective issues of morality and cultural considerations needed to be strongly considered. But despite the tricky design, Marquez concedes that the “Million Kids Education Application" was a challenge worth the long hours and painstaking research. "Creating an app while ensuring that the message to children was conveyed without frustrating or traumatizing them was quite challenging," Marquez said, stressing how the app may someday save someone's life.

Singleton and ICS faculty were so impressed with the team's work that it was featured at this year's Ingenuity, UCI's annual student technology showcase that features the top student innovations from ICS and The Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

The "Million Kids Education Application" complements a second UCI student-led project, the “Million Kids Reporting Application," which was created by ICS students Jefferson Sau, Shiyun Yang, Huyanh Hoang, Isaac Pak, Samuel Huang and Nerissa Del Rosario.

ICS students Isaac Pak, Jefferson Sau, Samuel Huang, Nerissa Del Rosario, Huyanh Hoang and Shiyun Yang worked with Opal Singleton to develop the "Million Kids Reporting Application."

"This one's going to be really slick, too," remarked Singleton, excited for the two applications to be fully live for public use this summer. "If someone contacts you for a naked photo, you just hit a button so that it can be reported to law enforcement all over the world. This will also help us find the IP address of the predators so that we can begin to hunt them down."

For many parents and kids who live in countries where law enforcement is seldom a trusted avenue for reporting exploitation, the Million Kids apps are going to make all the difference in their lives. Even in the United States, where this form of modern slavery is seldom at the top of many lawmakers' agendas, more than 22,191 sex trafficking cases have been reported since 2007 and one in six endangered runaway minors are likely sex-trafficking victims.

The Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center issued a 2014 report on eight US cities—Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC. Across these cities, the 2007 underground sex economy's worth was estimated between $39.9-$290 million. The numbers have simply continued to rise since then, with reports last year that sex trafficking overtook drugs as gangs' top cash source in San Diego. The problem is very real and very close to home.

Singleton, Marquez and the rest of the UCI team are excited that the partnership between Million Kids and UCI has given birth to two applications that will help the good guys win the fight against cyber predators.

"I was so impressed by these two groups,” said Singleton. “I might have educated them on the issue, but these students did a lot of research on their own. They were amazing technically and they did an excellent job."

The two UCI apps are expected to be available for download on by the end of summer.

Screenshots of the "Million Kids Education Application."

Making a difference one app at a time

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Judy and Gary Olson