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What is social embeddedness?

March 18, 2019

ASU's director of social embeddedness talks about how the university is finding ways to integrate into surrounding communities

One of ASU’s eight design aspirations is “social embeddedness,” defined as: ASU connects with communities through mutually beneficial partnerships.

ASU Now recently spoke with Lindsey Beagley, director of social embeddedness with the Office of University Initiatives, about how ASU is finding ways to integrate into surrounding communities, and just why social embeddedness is so important.

We caught up with Beagley at the recent 2019 Social Embeddedness Network conference. Nearly 300 ASU employees gathered at the Tempe campus in late February to share strategies about how to advance socially embedded research, teaching and student development.

Top photo by ASU

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ASU students developing off-grid tech to help small farms build resilience to climate change

March 18, 2019

With a growing global population, farmers are working hard to feed the world. Throw climate change into the mix and maintaining a thriving, high-yield farm becomes even harder.

Facing these challenges, it’s important for farmers to monitor soil for conditions such as temperature and moisture level in order to keep crops healthy. Agricultural sensors make it easy for farmers to take these measurements, but the sensors are usually attainable only for industrial farms that can afford the technology and can access electricity and a network connection. Rural small farms don’t always have these luxuries, said Bruce Baikie, a senior sustainability fellow in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

But the world can’t afford for small farms to fail. Family-run farms produce more than 80 percent of the world’s food, according to a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. These farmers need a low-infrastructure, affordable way to keep up with changing conditions in their soils.

That’s where SolarSENSE, an ASU student capstone project sponsored by Baikie, comes in. SolarSENSE makes use of technology from SolarSPELL, Solar-Powered Educational Learning Libraries developed by Senior Sustainability Scientist Laura Hosman, to allow off-grid rural farms access to soil data from sensors without the need for electricity or costly internet connections.

The project, which started in September 2018 and currently involves five computer science seniors, is in its beginning stages. In early March, four of the students along with Baikie and HosmanHosman is also an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Polytechnic School, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. traveled to Hawaii to test their innovative system on a remote farm — MA'O Organic Farms on the western side of Oahu (a connection arranged by Amanda Ellis, executive director of Hawaii and Asia Pacific in the ASU Wrigley Institute). Throughout their three-day proof-of-concept trip, the team also worked with the farmers to find out how SolarSENSE can take the data and present it in a way that is most useful.

In Hawaii, the team found that the technology worked, but they learned a lot about the product’s in-the-field application by interacting with the farmers.

“When we got into the field, we had to throw out the window a lot of preconceived notions we had and listen to the farmers,” Baikie said. “It helped point us in a new direction.”

Flame Porter, farm apprentice at MA'O Organic Farms, had positive feedback for SolarSENSE: "If we didn't care about our soil, we wouldn't be at this capacity. To be able to put (a sensor) in the soil and get results within that same day — it's revolutionary. It's going to help a lot of people.”

Ultimately, the goal of SolarSENSE is to not only improve accessibility to agricultural sensors for smaller farms, but also to connect the farmers to an agricultural library of recommended actions they could take based on the readings. The SolarSENSE digital agricultural library has both actional videos for farmers and a wealth of plant, soil and climate change information. The library is also accessed directly off the SolarSPELL unit — no internet connection required.

Kevin Hale, an ASU senior in software engineering who is part of the capstone team, said that they want the farmers to be able to “learn and share that knowledge with their community, so everyone can benefit.”

On a personal level, working with SolarSENSE has gone far beyond technology for Hale, who said that he learned a lot about sustainability and community through the Hawaiian farmers. One concept in particular that stuck with him was ahupua'a, the ancient Hawaiian system of land division to form self-sustaining ecosystems.

“The idea was that everyone helped each other get the resources that they need and that everyone supported each other locally,” Hale said. “I really enjoyed my time on the farm and seeing how the farmers too incorporated this mentality into their work. (I learned) that I need to not only worry about myself, but also look for ways that I can help sustain others in my community. Having these experiences … made me realize that I can have more impact on the world than I previously thought.”

The other ASU students involved in SolarSENSE for the fall 2018 and spring 2019 semesters are Tresor Cyubahiro, Wesley Davis, James Ortner and Scott Watkins. While in Hawaii, the team met with University of Hawaii President David Lassner to identify opportunities for collaboration between the two universities, and Hosman presented early findings about SolarSENSE testing at MA'O Organic Farms at a Sustainability Leaders Series event jointly sponsored by the ASU Wrigley Institute and the East-West Center.

Julie Ann Wrigley noted: “This is exactly the kind of practical impact I am proud our ASU Wrigley Institute sustainability scientists are able to make in the field. I am thrilled to see the wonderful work of SolarSPELL expanding and the meaningful connections with local indigenous Hawaiian enterprise MA’O as a follow on from our ASU Wrigley Institute board meeting held in Hawaii last November.”

Video produced by ASU computer science senior Scott Watkins

Top photo: (From left) ASU computer science seniors James Ortner, Scott Watkins, Tresor Cyubahiro and Kevin Hale; and Bruce Baikie, senior sustainability fellow and adjunct faculty in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Photo courtesy of Bruce Baikie

Kayla Frost

Associate Editor , Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability


Pair of ASU events feature scholars discussing how to safeguard democracy

March 15, 2019

Recent political climates at home and abroad may leave many feeling increasingly insecure about the future of democracy.

Our phones, TVs, computers and tablets provide a constant stream of media reports on erupting civic unrest in other countries, while in the U.S., increasing polarization has left communities divided as many Americans feel excluded from the ideal of “We the People.” Future of Democracy Download Full Image

In a 2018 survey, the Pew Research Center found that “Americans generally agree on the democratic ideals and values they see as important for the U.S. — but they say the country is falling short in living up to them.” Only 58 percent of Americans say democracy in the U.S. is working well. Meanwhile, widespread concerns about the future of democracy span the globe.

What prompts such pessimistic outlooks on a country’s ability to execute democratic principles?

“People are worried about the future of democracy today partly because they feel that ordinary citizens have too little power, partly because our party system seems broken and partly because there is such extreme polarization,” said Craig Calhoun, University Professor of social sciences at Arizona State University. “These are all issues for the U.S., but also for other democracies.”

John Carlson, interim director at ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and professor of religious studies, agrees. He calls for the empowerment of both the individual and democratic institutions alike in order to uphold and promote democracy.

“At a time when nationalist movements and antidemocratic trends are on the rise, the contributions of scholars, journalists, religious actors and others to democratic culture remains more important than ever,” Carlson said.

Considering the underlying urgency, fears and frictions, what does the future of democracy look like, and how can it be preserved?

This month, two ASU events welcome the public to engage with these important issues, providing insights on how to defend the future of democracy.

The first event, hosted by the Institute for Humanities Research, will focus on how community members can overcome feelings of powerlessness amidst authoritarian trends in the U.S. 

The March 20 lecture, titled “Public Universities, Democracy and the Citizen Professional,” will feature Harry C. Boyte, and will take place at 4:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union Ventana Ballroom at ASU’s Tempe campus.

“Harry Boyte’s talk will address precisely these issues of how to connect local to national and global, how to deal with polarization and how to empower citizens,” Calhoun said. “Harry Boyte is one of America’s most important voices for democracy rooted in the civic life of local communities. His famous early book ‘The Backyard Revolution’ told the story of how citizens changed their communities for the better even when national politics seemed blocked.”

The second event, “Religion, Nationalism, and the Future of Democracy,” will take place on March 27. It will address the threat that resurgent religious and ethnic nationalisms present to democracies around the world, as well as the role of media as it covers these conflicts and promotes public knowledge and democratic voice.

“Democracy cannot thrive without free press,” said Kristin Gilger, senior associate dean at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of the event moderators.

“We have seen that proposition proven over and over in other countries around the world. In the U.S., we tend to take democracy — and free media — somewhat for granted. But now, with recent attacks not just on the press, but on many of our democratic institutions and practices, we simply can’t afford to take these freedoms for granted any longer.”

Hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the March 27 lecture will feature Peter Beinart, contributing editor at The Atlantic and associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York. The event will take place at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall, on the Tempe campus.

Carlson will join Gilger in moderating the event. The lecture is part of the initiative, “Religion, Journalism, and Democracy: Strengthening the Vital Institutions of Civil Society,” which promotes the exchange of insights and expertise among journalists and scholars of religion.

Both events will provide ASU faculty, staff and students, along with members of the public, with the tools and insights necessary to effectively sustain democracy within their own communities.

Lauren Whitby contributed to this report.

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Putting people in the technology equation

March 14, 2019

Panel at Future of Humane Technology event in Washington explores power of narratives to shape what we do with climate change

There are two narratives in climate change right now. One is the day-to-day drumbeat of news stories, usually a new scientific study, and usually put aside with the day’s second cup of coffee.

The second is the latest natural disaster: Houston, Puerto Rico, Northern California. The disaster memory half-life is very short.

“In about nine months, people forget,” said Jeffery Mount, a panelist at Arizona State University’s Future of Humane Technology symposium Thursday at the Barrett & O’Connor Washington Center in the nation's capital. Forgetting drives political entropy, he said. “When a natural disaster occurs, you must leverage it to the best of your ability.”

The panel discussion, one of three centered around placing the human element in technology, revolved around narratives of climate change.

“Tensions between story and data,” it was described by the moderator, Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU. The symposium was sponsored by ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research.

Panelist Mount discussed the forgetfulness of people when it comes to climate change and its visible effects. Mount has many titles — senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, emeritus professor of Earth and planetary sciences, founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis — but his most memorable has been bestowed upon him by the media: “Dr. Doom.”

“We are seeing climate change unfold before our eyes,” Mount said. “The humanities do narratives better than anyone.”

A professor reads a statement during a panel on climate change
During the Future of Humane Technology symposium Thursday at the Barrett & O’Connor Washington Center, ASU Regents' Professor and Director of Jewish studies Hava Samuelson said that religion, with its moral imperatives, is well-suited to address and communicate climate change. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Hava Samuelson, Regents’ Professor and director of Jewish studies at ASU, came at the problem from the perspective of religion. Her interdisciplinary research explores potentially complementary relationships between science and religion.

Religion, with its moral imperatives, is well-suited to address and communicate climate change.

“The kind of stories we tell about the AnthropoceneThe Anthropocene is considered the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth, regarded as constituting a distinct geological age, according to Merriam-Webster. will determine whether we survive,” Samuelson said.

“It is within religious worldview ... that people organize their lives,” she said. “Diverse communities will need to develop a shared language. ... Our future survival depends on being able to listen to what is being said.”

All world religions have inspired activism in climate change, she said. What’s needed are narratives that see humanity as part of the web of life.

“Put the value of care at the center of everything,” she said.

Gary Dirks, director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and LightWorks at ASU and a former oil company executive, said the war over climate change is over. The only thing that is left to do now is negotiate the surrender.

“The energy system is going to transform,” Dirks said. “That is inevitable.” It is transforming not only because of climate change, but because of technology and market forces.

“We are rapidly entering into a point in time where humanities can play a really outside role in how this all comes out,” he said.

The transformation will accelerate because of investment opportunities in renewable energy. The existing tension is between a swift transition to renewable energy and a slower transition cradling legacy industries.

“We can’t know today what the final system will look like or how we’ll get there,” Dirks said, adding that the current narrative is polarized and unhelpful.

How does justice get built into this transition? “How we do that is completely unclear,” he said. 

People on a panel sit at tables
During the first panel of the day Thursday, (from left) Chris Kelty, Craig Calhoun, Sareeta Amrute, Brett Bobley, Gaymon Bennett and G. Pascal Zachary discuss humane intelligence. Photo by Lauren Whitby/ASU

Melissa Kenney came to the discussion from backgrounds in both academia and the federal government.  

“What is possible within the governance and cultural systems set up?” Kenney asked. She is both an associate research professor at the University of Maryland and associate director for knowledge initiatives at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment.

“I’ve never worked on a complex problem with a win-win solution,” she said. “What are the ethical and moral dimensions of solutions?”

She characterized adaptive environmental management — decision-making in the face of uncertainty — as “more aspirational.”

“Alarm bells are being set off, and it really shows us the criticality of the situation,” Kenney said. “We all created this; now we all have to solve it. We’re all in this together. ... We are creating the future of people who haven’t arrived yet. ... We need all hands on deck. It’s a problem, but it’s a problem we can solve.”

Asked about their visions of the world in 2050, panelists were optimistic.

“We will not deal with these issues from the standpoint of pessimism,” Dirks said. He predicted the world will not be at zero net emissions, but well advanced. Outstanding technical barriers, like long-term energy storage, will be solved by then.

“Where are the possibilities for things to go right?” said Kenney, who talked about the U.S. Virgin Islands, where 95 percent of everything was destroyed by hurricane and is now being rebuilt with a view towards resilience and sustainability

“Look at what the Dutch are doing,” said Mount, referring to the elaborate flood-control measures the Netherlands has built over the past 30 years.

Earlier in the day, the symposium featured a keynote by ASU President Michael M. Crow, as well as two other panels: “Humane Intelligence in the Age of AI, Algorithms and Autonomous Systems,” moderated by Gaymon Bennett, associate professor of religion, science, and technology at ASU; and “Preserving the Person in Personalized Medicine,” moderated by Deborah Helitzer, dean of the College of Health Solutions at ASU.

Top photo: (From left) ASU Regents’ Professor Hava Samuelson, Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Jeffrey Mount and University of Maryland Associate Research Professor Melissa Kenney listen as Gary Dirks, director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, makes a point during the Future of Humane Technology symposium in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


New collaboration between ASU College of Health Solutions, Herberger Institute sparks innovative research projects

March 14, 2019

Faculty researchers from the College of Health Solutions and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts have combined forces on interdisciplinary research projects through a new grant program that brings health and design and the arts together to solve various health challenges.

The Collaborative Seed Grant program is a joint venture initiated last summer by the deans of both colleges to fund projects that combine the research and expertise of their respective faculties. College of Health Solutions Dean Deborah Helitzer and Herberger Institute Dean Steven Tepper each pledged $10,000 to establish this competitive research grant and have funded three innovative projects through this new collaboration. glass globe Download Full Image

Hearing loss rehabilitation, awareness and prevention through acoustic ecology and virtual reality

Grant: $6,330.
Principal investigator: Sabine Feisst, professor of music, School of Music, Herberger Institute.
Co-investigators: Aparna Rao, clinical associate professor, College of Health Solutions; Garth Paine, associate professor, School of Arts, Media and Engineering, Herberger Institute.

Description: Blending medical research, sound studies, creativity and technological innovation, faculty from ASU's Acoustic Ecology Lab  and ASU's Speech and Hearing Clinic will focus on the emotional and psychological impact of hearing loss in adult patients. Researchers will use listening practices from the fields of music, sound studies and acoustic ecology such as multi-sensory environmental listening, creative exercises and virtual reality technology to rehabilitate individuals with hearing loss.

Development of a hydration self-assessment system for student athletes

Grant: $5,000.
Principal investigator: Floris Wardenaar, associate professor of nutrition, College of Health Solutions.
Co-investigator: Dean Bacalzo, assistant professor of industrial design, The Design School, Herberger Institute.

Description: Researchers aim to create a reliable, cost-effective urine color system for athletes to self-assess their hydration levels. Current methods for assessing hydration are cumbersome, inconvenient and non-standardized. Combining user-friendly design principles with field research will advance the use of this method to assess factors that affect athletic performance.

Design of the future workstation: Enhancing health and well-being on the job

Grant: $8,000.
Principal investigator: Dosun Shin, associate professor of industrial design, The Design School.
Co-investigators: Assegid Kidane, engineer, School of Arts, Media and Engineering; Pavan Turaga, associate professor, School of Arts, Media and Engineering; Todd Ingalls, research professor, School of Arts, Media and Engineering; Matthew Buman, associate professor, College of Health Solutions.

Description: Research studies associating sedentary behavior with numerous chronic physical ailments inspired a collaboration to create a new type of desk for employees whose work requires them to sit for prolonged periods. Embedded sensors will assess posture and sit-to-stand efficiency and will issue prompts to increase standing behavior. Users will get feedback about their movements through unobtrusive displays as well as light and sound cues.

The one-year grants fund the projects through the end of 2019.

Kelly Krause

Communications Specialist, College of Health Solutions

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Paying the price: ASU researchers say health care waste is worse than reported

March 14, 2019

Simpler, cheaper 'upstream prevention' — such as installing AC or paying for a taxi ride to the doctor — could save taxpayers

In 2017, health care spending in the United States grew to $3.5 trillion, or nearly 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

But not all of this spending actually helps make us healthier. In fact, it is estimated that one-third or more of the country’s health care spending — or more than $1.1 trillion — does not lead to better health outcomes.

Two researchers from the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University are now suggesting that even this eye-catching number likely underestimates the extent of the problem.

In a new research paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Mac McCullough and Matthew Speer — along with a team from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health led by Jonathan Fielding and Steven Teutsch — examine the true extent of health care waste in the United States.

The paper is part of a broader collaboration between the research teams at ASU and UCLA. Together, they are exploring the causes of and solutions to health care’s waste problems.

Editor's note: Answers are a collaborative effort of McCullough and Speer.

Mac McCullough
Mac McCullough 

Question: What is health care “waste”?

Answer: Health care spending that does not actually make us any healthier can be considered “waste.”

When a patient undergoes repeated tests because information wasn’t shared between health care providers, or when a person visits a hospital for a condition that could have been prevented with a simple intervention, it is considered waste. Health care waste costs all of us because we pay more for our own health insurance, or more in taxes, to support programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Our health care system spends untold sums to treat health conditions that could have been prevented altogether had we done a better job of addressing the non-clinical needs that drive health outcomes. These include factors outside the clinical setting that impact a person’s ability to be healthy — such as reliable transportation, adequate housing, clean air and water, or access to healthy food.

In our paper, we use the example of a patient with congestive heart failure whose medical condition was aggravated by the strain of a hot summer day. The cost of this patient’s visit to the emergency room would easily exceed $50,000, when a $200 window air-conditioner installed in her apartment could have prevented the episode altogether.

But the system isn’t set up to encourage these often simpler, more affordable forms of care, such as installing a working air-conditioner, providing transportation to a doctor’s visit or performing mold abatement.

It is unquestionably a positive thing that there are life-saving treatments available. At the same time, it is not the mark of a well-functioning system that there are mechanisms in place to pay tens of thousands of dollars for care, but fewer mechanisms in place to pay a few hundred dollars to avoid hospitalization altogether.

Our work aims to shine a light on these misalignments with the ultimate goal of reducing wasteful spending so that we can ensure that the spending we’re already doing can have the greatest impact on health outcomes.

Matthew Speer
Matthew Speer 

Q: Is anything currently being done by health care providers, insurers or governments to tackle waste that results from non-clinical factors like housing, transportation, or access to healthy food?

A: The rising and unsustainable cost of health care in the United States has led stakeholders at every level to prioritize how to address wasteful spending.

States are beginning to introduce ways of allowing programs like Medicaid to pay for the kinds of services highlighted here, such as safe housing, reliable transportation to health visits, and more. Initially, these programs are targeting fairly limited sets of services — mainly those that have strong and consistent evidence linking them with better health outcomes and cost savings.

Health care providers also play an important role as advocates for the unmet social needs of their patients, which can later translate into poorer health outcomes. However, far more work needs to be done if we are to curb health care waste resulting from missed non-clinical prevention opportunities.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to support non-clinical prevention opportunities? In the future, could insurance companies be expected to cover costs related to things like transportation and housing?

A: Clinical preventive services, such as vaccinations or disease screenings, are regularly evaluated by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), and a key provision of the Affordable Care Act requires that insurance plans cover their recommended services. But, the USPSTF is not charged with considering all of the non-clinical preventive services that impact our health.

Likewise, housing agencies and schools are usually not equipped to prioritize health care in their own budgets. In many ways, we tend to fund and then evaluate public programs in silos.

From a narrow perspective, it may not seem logical for health insurance companies to pay for a taxi ride. But the evidence is building that there are specific times when doing this can yield better outcomes at lower costs.

It stands to reason that the more we are able to holistically view our health and social services, the more synergies we will be able to identify. As a result, it will likely require the joint efforts of these stakeholders, governmental agencies and all other health care organizations to realign the incentives of our system and collectively shoulder the responsibility for upstream prevention.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Katherine Reedy

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


What is human trafficking, and how can technology combat it?

March 13, 2019

Law enforcement organizations across the United States have recently arrested multiple people charged with various crimes that include organizing, operating or paying for services from human trafficking rings.

To learn more about human trafficking and how current and future technologies can help address the problem, ASU Now spoke with Kristen Abrams, the senior director of combatting human trafficking at ASU’s McCain Institute for International Leadership, and Nadya Bliss, director of ASU’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). GSI recently helped organize a conference at the United Nations on how computational science and AI can help combat human trafficking. Police Car Download Full Image

Question: What is human trafficking?

Abrams: Human trafficking, sometimes referred to as trafficking in persons or modern-day slavery, is a heinous crime that involves the exploitation of a person for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sex. Methods of coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological and can include blackmailing, threats against a victim or a victim's loved ones, or the withholding of identifying documents or wages. Any commercial sexual exploitation of a minor is human trafficking, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud or coercion was involved.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and its subsequent reauthorizations, provides a federal definition of human trafficking. Since 2013, every state has implemented legislation to define human trafficking. Many state definitions of human trafficking mirror the federal definition.

The use of the word “trafficking” has created some confusion in understanding what human trafficking involves. In crimes such as drug trafficking or arms trafficking, the illicit commodity, drugs or guns, are moved from one location to another or across an international border. Human trafficking is not synonymous with human smuggling. Human smuggling involves a voluntary contract between a person and smuggler to provide a service such as transportation or fraudulent identity documents to gain illegal entry into a foreign country. A victim of human trafficking does not have to be moved from one location to another or across an international border. Simply put, a human trafficker takes advantage of and exploits an individual for forced labor or commercial sex for the trafficker’s gain. 

Q: How are people trafficked?

Abrams: Human traffickers use a wide range of tactics to recruit and manipulate people to perform labor or commercial sex acts, ranging from subtle means of psychological manipulation to severe forms of violence. Human traffickers are often known to the victim — they may be associates, friends, significant others or family members of the person they seek to exploit.

A trafficker may use a close, unhealthy relationship or bond as a way to groom and compel a possible victim. Human traffickers may have direct access to potential victims, such as a family member, or they can use tools such as the internet or apps to make contact, gain trust and groom a potential victim.

Similar to gang or terrorist recruitment, human traffickers seek out those who might be vulnerable at a certain time or phase in their life. Individuals at higher risk for human trafficking include runaway and homeless youth, undocumented workers, children in foster care, individuals identifying as LGBTQ or people with disabilities. Anyone who lacks a support system or is isolated is vulnerable and more susceptible to human trafficking.

Q: Is there an estimate of how many people in the U.S. are trafficked?

Abrams: Many people would like to know the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States, especially those tasked with combatting this crime. More research and reliable supporting data would be required to arrive at an authoritative estimate. While the U.S. attorney general and the U.S. Department of State compile and release annual reports that contain some statistics regarding U.S. activities to combat human trafficking, they only provide part of the information required to form a full estimate.

Another source that provides some of the information that may help further inquiries into national prevalence is Polaris, a nonprofit organization seeking to eradicate human trafficking, which has operated a national human trafficking hotline for over a decade. In 2017, Polaris reported that it worked on 8,759 cases of human trafficking that involved 10,615 victims of the crime. It should be noted that these are cases and victims that appear to involve human trafficking, but not confirmed victims of human trafficking.

Global estimates help to contextualize U.S. numbers. The International Labour Organization (ILO), for example, reported that at any given time in 2016, there were an estimated 24.9 million people trapped in conditions of forced labor globally. The ILO further reports that women and girls are disproportionately affected by human trafficking, representing 99 percent of victims of forced labor in the commercial sex industry and 58 percent in other sectors.

Q: Is trafficking obvious?

Abrams: Human trafficking is not obvious, and it can be hard to recognize the signs. Individuals performing labor services and employers benefiting from this activity can appear legitimate. Moreover, victims of human trafficking often do not self-identify as victims. The methods used to manipulate individuals through power and control dynamics can be so egregious — or the trafficker may be so trusted — that a victim may not recognize the exploitation that he or she endured (or) view himself or herself as a victim of a crime. A victim can also be reluctant to report human trafficking because he or she may be fearful, lack trust or feel ashamed.

Additionally, some victims fear for their own safety or the safety of their loved ones, friends or family, while other victims may be undocumented migrants and fearful of deportation, or may be distrustful of law enforcement or other officials.

Though by no means an exhaustive list, an individual experiencing trafficking may exhibit one or more of the following indicators:

  • Signs of physical or psychological abuse, such as bruising or untreated medical conditions, depression, anxiety or low self-esteem.
  • Behavior that appears instructed by another, as though he or she is forced or coerced to carry out specific activities.
  • Not being paid, being paid very little, or working excessive hours or in dangerous conditions.
  • Not being allowed to leave home or work location, or is closely supervised and restricted in movement.
  • Experiencing threats made against themselves or family members.
  • Not being in possession of one’s own legal documents or financial records.
  • Being under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex.

Q: What is the difference between sex trafficking and consensual sex work?

Abrams: Sex trafficking occurs when an individual under the age of 18 performs a sex act for something of value. Anyone benefiting from this sex act — including the person who purchased and was a recipient of a sex act or a third party who obtains something of value — is a trafficker. If an individual is older than 18, one must show that the person performing the sex act was compelled to perform the sex act through means of force, fraud or coercion. If the individual is at least 18 years of age and no force, fraud or coercion was used to compel the sex act, this is not human trafficking. People willingly enter sex work for a variety of reasons. However, that does not mean that an individual engaged in sex work cannot be a victim of human trafficking. Trafficking occurs under situations of force, fraud or coercion, meaning that traffickers can victimize a willing sex worker.

Recognizing potential red flags and knowing the indicators of human trafficking is a key step in identifying more victims and helping them find the assistance they need. To request help or report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text "help" to BeFree (233733).

Using technology to combat the problem

Q: How can existing technology help fight human trafficking?

Bliss: One huge challenge that was repeatedly raised at the recent Code 8.7 Conference at the U.N. is the lack of a common database — of victims or of traffickers — that can be accessed by law enforcement organizations, governments and the organizations working to combat trafficking. That’s an example of an existing technology that could aid in helping law enforcement detect and follow up on trafficking-related issues, but there are challenges in creating such a database: For example, there would need to be a common data format, and there would need to be agreements on how information can be used to make sure victims’ privacy is protected.

Other examples of current technology that can help include systems to track trafficking on the dark web, or to assess the vulnerability of supply chains to forced labor.

Q: How can AI and other new technologies help?

Bliss: From an AI perspective, I think there’s an opportunity to inject tools like pattern recognition and signal detection to identify suspects, potential victims and survivors. But it’s not always obvious that someone is being trafficked, so working through things like analysis of massive data sets can take time because signatures of trafficking can be weak.

Another area that is particularly interesting within computer science is the balance of large-scale computation with security and privacy. In different application domains, security and privacy have different significance. In the area of human trafficking, protection of survivors and their confidential information is of paramount importance, and understanding how to build systems with multilevel security access that provide information without sacrificing privacy is incredibly important and a major challenge.

I’d also note it’s important to be sensitive when thinking about applying advanced research to any immediate problem. When there is an on-the-ground crisis, it’s not necessarily appropriate to inject a new algorithm or test a new system. It is appropriate to think longer-term about what risks are emerging, and from there to think about how the research can be applied to the problem in various places — for example, detection and rescue of survivors or identifying suspects in trafficking chains.

For more information on trafficking, visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign, the U.S. Department of State's 2018 Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. attorney general's Trafficking in Persons report or the ASU McCain Institute for International Leadership's Combatting Human Trafficking website

Leslie Minton

Media Relations Manager, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


$2.5M grant from US Department of Education funds 21st-century, open-resource learning project

The Consortium for Open Active Pathways unites ASU and three of the nation’s largest community college systems

March 13, 2019

A $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education is funding a major collaboration to improve education. The Consortium for Open Active Pathways will use technology to increase the availability of college-level educational materials. Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is the lead unit in the consortium that partners ASU with three of America’s largest community college systems: the Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Miami Dade College (Florida) and Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana).

The consortium aims to benefit 100,000 students through access to open educational resources — OER — that provide students with better learning outcomes than traditional textbooks while saving them millions of dollars. OER are freely available academic materials that can be downloaded, edited and shared to better serve all students. 3D microscope image of a cell Courtesy of Inspark. Download Full Image

Embracing online education

Ariel Anbar is the principal investigator for the Consortium for Open Active Pathways project. A President’s Professor at ASU, Anbar is on the faculties of the Teachers College, the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences. He is also director of ETX, ASU’s Center for Education Through eXploration, which will lead the consortium. Anbar said he became interested in OER as a way of improving online education.

“In the last decade, we've gone from higher education looking skeptically at online teaching to embracing it,” Anbar said. “But what we embraced in the first wave of online learning is a virtualization of the passive, lecture mode of instruction where the focus is content, content, content. I want to use digital technology to improve the quality of how we teach across the board, taking the principles we call active learning — constructivism, learning by doing, those kinds of things — and bringing them into the online world through open educational resources.”

Anbar calls the resulting offerings “active OER.” He said the idea of COAP is to produce not only active OER modules but also a tool that enables an instructor to assemble a package of those and other openly licensed digital materials into a suite of resources.

President's Professor Ariel Anbar

“So they could have a sort of virtual textbook,” Anbar said. “A no-cost digital textbook available to students that includes some of these active modules and is also available in print form for a low cost.”

But he said active OER should be more than online textbooks. They can provide a suite of resources encompassing the entire body of intellectual material for a course, and all of it open for access, editing and sharing.

“When you say textbook, that evokes just reading,” Anbar said. “But when you're in the digital realm working with open resources you can do all sorts of things beyond the text, taking maximum advantage of the digital medium. And ‘active’ means digital resources that involve simulations that are interactive but also adaptive. The learner doesn’t just move something around in the simulation but actually gets prompting feedback that guides them to success.” Anbar calls this feedback guided active learning or digital tutoring, a system provided by the Smart Sparrow platform, another partner in the grant.

Student success is a goal

Anbar said providing active OER will improve degree attainment, a key goal of this DOE grant program.

“We will do a pathways analysis, taking a look at these degree programs to figure out where are those critical points where the active OER we create could have the most bang for the buck,” he said.

The other higher-education partners in the project — the Maricopa Community Colleges, Miami Dade and Ivy Tech — were chosen for their size and because they are members of Inspark. A digital teaching network of more than 50 colleges and universities worldwide, Inspark was created by ASU’s ETX and Smart Sparrow with a $4.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Through Inspark, faculty members at the community colleges will be provided an open course builder that draws from Active Mesh, a newly created catalog of existing OER. From there they can select existing learning resources and combine them with new, high-quality active OER developed for the project. Initially, Active Mesh will focus on materials for courses that lead to associate degrees in the health sciences, a popular choice among community college students.

The grant also provides funding for designated faculty members on the community college campuses to assist their colleagues with the implementation of the active OER modules.

“We learned from the Gates Foundation project that having local champions is absolutely vital," Anbar said. "You've got to find those faculty members who are ready to do something new and help them help us figure out how to turn it into something that can reach others.”

Student savings is another

Matthew Bloom, an English instructor at Scottsdale Community College in the Maricopa Community Colleges district and a member of the college’s OER task force, is one of those local champions.

“My experience is that many faculty members are excited about the prospect of using OER but not everybody has time to go out and find them,” he said.

Bloom surveyed his colleagues in 2015 about their use of OER, finding that nearly half the respondents said they use OER for their courses.

Maricopa Community Colleges (MCC) has been a leader in the OER movement, particularly for the cost advantages it offers students. Bloom’s survey found that 62 percent of MCC’s faculty who used OER reported savings of at least $75 per student. Since 2013, MCC’s Maricopa Millions OER project has funded the development of more than 20 complete courses and saved students more than $15 million through OER and other no-cost or low-cost course materials in place of traditional textbooks.

But Bloom emphasizes that, while the savings OERs provide are important to students, “It’s also about access. When students get an online book at low- or no cost, they can get it immediately and are more likely to start reading it immediately.”

Bloom emphasized the distinction between free materials and open.

“Free is great,” he said. “But open is better because the open source licenses explicitly permit students, faculty and everyone else in the world to freely, immediately and permanently access and generate knowledge.”

Partnership is key

Enlisting the community colleges in the project provides two-way benefits, Anbar said.

“It’s valuable for them to be able to be able to partner with a research university like ASU,” he said. “And it helps us live up to ASU’s mission of universal learning: reaching as many students as we can, at all stages of work and learning and from all backgrounds, with educational and skill-building opportunities.”

Copy writer, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College


Mastering quality and process improvement with Six Sigma

ASU's expert faculty, online courses and white paper exercise help experienced Six Sigma Black Belts become master changemakers

March 13, 2019

Businesses are always striving to be better, faster and more efficient. The ultimate goal is achieving Six Sigma — or less than 3.4 defects out of a million iterations of a process, or as close to perfect as is reasonably possible. The leaders responsible for making this happen require a mastery of statistics, technology and management.

Master Black Belts are the keystone members of an organization who play critical roles as change agents, thought leaders, trainers, mentors and project leaders of Six Sigma implementation. Participants get ready to start their Master Black Belt certification program at ASU. Master Black Belt certification program participants get ready to begin their course at ASU. Offered through the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, the intensive five-day program includes additional online training and a white paper for participants to solidify mastery of the Six Sigma skills and tools that can help improve their organizations. Photo courtesy of the Global Outreach and Extended Education office Download Full Image

Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering holds a semi-annual Master Black Belt certification program that helps provide experienced Black Belts with the additional technical and business leadership skills they need to be successful in today’s challenging organizational landscape.

The ASU Master Black Belt Program is one of many ways the Fulton Schools connects with industry leaders and provides continuing education for engineers and innovators.

“We remain committed to supporting the learning and development needs of industry professionals by providing programs that provide impact, promote their professional journey and deliver value to their sponsor organizations,” said Octavio Heredia, director of the Fulton Schools Global Outreach and Extended Education office.

two men seated in chairs
ASU Professor Dan Shunk and ASU Regents’ Professor Douglas Montgomery share their perspectives on opening day of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Master Black Belt certification program. Learning from leaders in the fields of industrial engineering and statistics is the highlight of many past participants’ experience in the program. Photo courtesy of the Global Outreach and Extended Education office

Together with their peers and expert faculty, Black Belts can build power thinking skills to generate new solutions by balancing innovation and the limitations of practical deployment in their own organizations.

The largest draw of the Fulton Schools program is the caliber of faculty who teach the Master Black Belt courses. Many have decades of experience in engineering management and implementing and teaching Six Sigma concepts. Others are expert researchers in industrial engineering and statistics.

“Students in the program have the opportunity to learn and interact with world-renowned faculty and industry professionals, giving them a great opportunity to not only learn from the best, but consult with them and address their specific challenges,” Heredia said.

ASU alumnus Garry L. Lewicki, an associate technical fellow and senior quality engineer at the Boeing Co. in Mesa, Arizona, has worked with ASU to coordinate Six Sigma training for his team. In 2018, he sought out the ASU Master Black Belt program to take his Black Belt training to the next level. He knew exactly where he wanted to get his certification and who he wanted to learn from.

“I know the quality of these individuals (teaching the courses), and when you have the opportunity to learn from the likes of Doug Montgomery and Dan Shunk, why would you consider anywhere else?” Lewicki said.

Shunk, a professor of industrial engineering, has spearheaded systems engineering continuing education efforts for companies such as General Dynamics and has decades of experience researching and teaching the concepts behind successful Six Sigma implementation.

Montgomery, a Regents’ Professor of industrial engineering and statistics and ASU Foundation Professor of industrial engineering, has an extensive history working in the industrial engineering sector and is a research leader in industrial statistics.

Jim Boblett, director of operational excellence at Viant Medical who completed the 2018 Master Black Belt certification program at ASU, said he learned many new opportunities to incorporate Six Sigma practices in his organization’s Operational Excellence rollout.

“Dr. Shunk taught us his VSAT (value-based strategic assessment tool) methodology and it will bring a change that I had not previously thought about and will be extremely beneficial in our OpEx deployment; Dr. (Lisa) Custer’s Master Black Belt deployment strategy is perfect for a new deployment or even a redo of a previous rollout,” Boblett said. “The opportunity to receive instruction from Dr. Montgomery is worth taking the program by itself, but with Dr. (Michelle) Mancenido assisting, the coverage of statistics is very well done!”

woman pointing at a white board covered in sticky notes
Master Black Belt certification program participants work together to master the advanced technical, leadership and operational excellence skills needed to be effective changemakers. Photo courtesy of the Global Outreach and Extended Education office

Along with faculty, working with other motivated Black Belts enrolled in the program can help gain new perspectives on how to apply Six Sigma tools.

“Students are able to learn from their peers and explore how other organizations have successfully solved similar challenges, thus the professional network students are able to form during their program is highly unique,” Heredia said.

As Black Belts are already very involved members of their organizations working to implement Six Sigma projects, the Fulton Schools program helps them balance certification in their current role in an intensive, five-day on-campus program that involves lecture, discussion, activities and presentations.

The Master Black Belt program then builds on the Fulton Schools’ strengths as a top 10 online engineering graduate program by providing additional online courses. Master Black Belts-in-training can use these courses, which cover topics in addition to the core courses, to customize the knowledge they need to best help their organizations. Participants can choose from one or all courses in Lean Great Belt, design of experiments, response surface methodology, design for Six Sigma and forecasting time series analysis.

Finally, after completing the on-campus experience and online training, participants complete a white paper instead of an additional project. The white paper is a high-level report on how to deploy Six Sigma specifically within their organization. Participants identify a problem statement, define a tactical approach and demonstrate technical tools and methods and how they will be used to implement the plan.

Montgomery calls it the 20-page version of an elevator pitch.

“It’s a paper that is, in a sense, a diagnostic study of what’s going on in your business, what the gaps are, what the opportunities are and what needs to be done to accelerate Lean Six Sigma or other Operational Excellence tools within your business,” he said.

Overall, participants get a variety of experiences and tools to help them lead organizational improvements and further their careers.

“The knowledge imparted during this program will have the ability to improve your current understanding of Six Sigma methodologies and Operational Excellence,” Boblett said. “No matter your role — current or desired — there is something for everyone to take the next steps in their career.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Howard Center executive editor delivers 13th Paul J. Schatt Memorial Lecture

March 11, 2019

Award-winning AP editor Maud Beelman said new center will use cutting-edge technology to prepare budding investigative journalists

Investigative reporters tend to see the world in a different way.

“An investigative mindset, as I conceive it, is someone who looks at the world just slightly askew,” said Maud Beelman, founding executive editor of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. “It’s someone who’s willing to consider that the most outrageous, impossible, unthinkable thing that could happen might happen and feel the need to look into it.

“I think anything is possible, and I think history has shown us that the most outrageous things happen. … Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Beelman's talk, “Investigative Reporting and the New Howard Center,” on Monday evening was a continuation of the spring 2019 “Must See Mondays” lecture series at the Cronkite School on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

“We are delighted (she) is teaching the next generation of investigative reporters the importance of producing stories that have a real public impact,” said Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan. “Beelman’s experience and insight as a veteran journalist are qualities that make her an obvious choice to deliver this year's Paul Schatt Lecture.”

With moderator Walter V. Robinson, the Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Investigative Journalism, Beelman discussed her journalism career, the state of investigative reporting and the new Howard Center at Cronkite, which launched this year with a $3 million grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation in order to produce a new generation of investigative journalists.

Beelman said growing up in New Orleans served her well when she eventually became a journalist.

“It’s a city where the sea level is above your head, and you learn at an early age that things aren’t what they appear to be,” Beelman said. “I was a precocious child, and I was always asking the wrong question at the right time. Journalism seemed to be a natural fit.”

It certainly was.

Beelman excelled at every position and every post she was assigned to, including stints as a domestic and foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in her hometown of New Orleans and later working in Florida and Pennsylvania. She edited on AP’s international desk in New York before moving to Germany at the start of a six-year foreign assignment. During her overseas tour, Beelman covered German unification, the Kurdish refugee crisis in Iran and Iraq after the first Gulf War, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

In between, she studied and became fluent in German.

“When the Berlin Wall came down, I was the only editor in New York who spoke German, which just proves that timing makes winners, not necessarily (that) it’s only talent,” she said.

Before joining the Cronkite faculty in January, Beelman was the U.S. investigations editor for the Associated Press. She led a national team of reporters who produced long- and short-term projects, including investigations into sexual assault among children in public schools and on U.S. military bases, police misconduct and medical-device safety.

In 1997, she founded the international Consortium of Investigative Journalists and led the Washington-based group until 2004. During that time, she helped identify and recruit the world’s leading investigative reporters, oversaw and edited the group’s projects and built collaborations among investigative journalists worldwide. Under her leadership, the group won the first George Polk Award given for online journalism.

Her honors came at a time when investigative journalism as a whole was on the decline. To that end, she said there’s “still a gaping hole” to fill since 2008 in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

“What I think has been an unfortunate consequence has been a downsizing of the mainstream newsroom environment, in that with a few bright exceptions, investigative reporting units at midsize and definitely at small papers have been cut,” Beelman said, who added there has been a rise in nonprofit investigative operations to fill some of the breach.

“There’s still a lot of power structures that are not being watched,” Beelman added. “There are still some communities where the city council or school board meetings are not being covered.”

Beelman said she had just landed her dream job and moved into a new home when she got the call asking her to come teach at ASU. She said it was the Cronkite School’s talent and the idea of building the Howard Center from the ground up that ultimately lured her to the Valley.

“I’m sure you’re incredibly aware of how fortunate you are to have the faculty that you do here at ASU,” Beelman said, addressing the students. “There are people who teach here that I used to look at and be in awe of and still am. I’d see them at professional conferences and think, ‘Aw, I can’t go up and talk to them.’ There’s no place else in the country that has this lineup of investigative reporters and editors.”

She also likes the Cronkite School’s ambition, audacity and innovation.

“So they’re not big, right?” Beelman said, slightly tongue in cheek. “We’re just going to build the first master’s program in investigative reporting, and we’re going to use the Howard Center as the laboratory in which these students are going to produce multimedia, groundbreaking investigations using cutting-edge technology in which we are going to collaborate with the biggest media in the United States to get it published and broadcast. I don’t think that’s undoable.”

Beelman said the center will focus on high-impact, national issues using an interdisciplinary approach to reporting.

“What we’re going to do is tap into people who are experts in their fields who are scattered throughout the university system and get them to teach specially designed mini courses in some aspect that will help you as an investigative reporter,” she said. She added that could come in the form of an FBI member teaching interview techniques or an expert on how to interview trauma victims.

“The plan cooked in from the very beginning (is) to give you guys at least a head start on some of this crucial expertise that you will use in investigative reporting and that will put you a step ahead of anyone else,” Beelman said. “And hopefully, it will set a role model for the rest of the journalism/education community ahead.”

The first cohort at ASU’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism will begin in fall 2019. 

Top photo: Maud Beelman, the founding executive editor of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the Cronkite School, hosts a lecture about the state of investigative journalism across the globe. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now