Operation Compass

What is Operation Compass?

Operation Compass is a 501(c)3 that was a result of the research conducted for my master’s thesis while working toward my Masters of Fine Arts in Design Research at the University of North Texas. The purpose of my research was to propose a successful integration of technology into the humanitarian challenge of combating human trafficking.

The Problem

When I first started to learn about human trafficking I was pretty naïve to the intricacies of helping a victim. I had some pretty grand ideas of the different types of technology I could create with my background as an interaction designer, however after doing some secondary research, gathering both qualitative and quantitative data, I realized this was the wrong approach to helping victims.

Some victims may not even see themselves as such and others may see no other way of living as an option. The definition of human trafficking used in this study comes from the first global legally binding definition defined by the United Nations in 2003:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude and the removal of organs (Trafficking in Persons Protocol, article 3 (a)).

One of the leading non-profits in the fight against human trafficking report truck stops as a common venues for human trafficking in the United States. Truck stops are a common venue due to their remote locations and lax security. Many victims are transported from one truck stop to another with stays lasting two to three weeks at each stop (Polaris, TruckDriving.pdf). Given this reality, the 3.5 million professional truck drivers traveling the US highways are in a unique position to provide information to help this particular group of victims of human trafficking. In 2013 the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received approximately 32,000 reports, of which only 300 identified themselves as truck drivers. This fact prompted me to ask, why? And how could this number be increased? Would some form of integrated technology allow truck drivers to report incidents of human trafficking at a higher rate?

I divided my research into two phases in order to highlight the different factors and major themes derived from the exploratory research and to explore how those factors influenced the prototype. Phase 1 focused on the exploratory framework, which included secondary research, primary research, and field site observations. Phase 2 focused on prototype development, some secondary research, primary research, and the user-group framework.

Phase One

My contextual research, based on my prior qualitative study, sought to: analyze how truck drivers engage in everyday activities while working and understand how extant or emerging technology could encourage higher levels of trafficking reports. My investigation was broadly framed by grounded theory and activity theory research methods. To gain a better understanding of how truck drivers operate while on the road and how technology would naturally integrate into their activities, I observed students and trainers at a truck driver training school, observed patrons behaviors at truck stops, and conducted one-on-one interviews.

These interviewees often focused on three themes; safety, technology and how to identify human trafficking.


While there was a common pool of technology drivers chose from their task was quite often the same, which was to determine their route for the next day and finding a safe place to park and sleep. The pool of technology includes but is not limited to: i.e. Qualcomm (an on board computer), global positions system, phones, computers, tablets, mobile applications and a wifi connection. Some technology drivers chose not to use because of the idea they were being watched by an employer,

“There is this idea of Big Brother watching them while they are on the road. Many men are told to abide by the laws with driving times, however once they are handed their times they realize they don’t have any other option [but to exceed the legally bound limits of driving times]. They prefer to use logs on their phones or paper logs, this way they don’t have big brother watching their every move.” (Truck Driver #4, 2014)


Another common concern was the amount of personal information disclosed on their part to the location they were staying. This disclosure gave them a sense of vulnerability when it came to actually reporting a suspected instance.

“When a prostitute knocks on the door of our rig, we have three options: 1)invite the girl in, 2)refuse or 3)call the 888 number. If we call the authorities then the prostitute may turn on us once the police arrive and we end up in trouble.” (Truck Driver #3)

What does human trafficking look like?”

An unanticipated finding in my research helped me understand the contextual relationship between truck drivers and “sex workers” at truck stops. I often heard from drivers they didn’t see sex workers as being forced to do their work and instead there was a mindset of it being a chosen lifestyle. Some of the terms used to describe “sex workers” at truck stops include: Bunk Bunny, Commercial Company, Dress for Sale, Free Ride, Highway Hostess and the most common Lot Lizard. I found stickers with a red circle and line over the illustration of a lot lizard to place on a rig and even found t-shirts that say, I love Lot Lizards.

“You know it is hard to tell between that (human trafficking) and prostitution, it seems like they have hidden it more than it use to be, I can remember years ago in Florida, it was horrible, really young girls knocking on the door, one girl couldn’t have been 14, it was poring down rain, after a while you get hardened by it because it happens a lot.” (Truck Driver #12)

The factors I have gleaned from phase one that needed to be implemented into the mobile application included: anonymity, convenience, and safety.

Phase Two

In phase two I took the factors from phase one and started working on a prototype. Due to the importance of anonymity, I was able to rule out using current uses of mobile applications or the on-board computer to report suspected instances of human trafficking.  The first prototype design was very lean and simple, however it did not capture enough information. The second prototype had three paths for the user 1) audio recording, 2) picture submission or 3) filling out a form. I developed this prototype and was able to take a working prototype with me to a human trafficking conference in Washington D.C..

I received feedback from multiple service providers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and victims advocates. Some of the factors included adding Spanish, omitting the picture option because of issues with pornography laws, and a privacy notice. I updated the prototype and conducted interviews with truck drivers and they were really excited to see this mobile app. Some of their responses included:

One big problem that we have out here is we have to show our driver’s license a lot. We have to get them photocopied, all kinds of stuff … now they know that my wife and my family are alone. Nobody even bothers with
that. That’s why I said that they have the anonymity problem is because they’re trying to protect their home front from a possibility of getting in repercussions, because we’re dealing with the dark side. These people have no problem in going and taking care of our family, because they know there’s always a means to find them.” Not only are the victims afraid of traffickers’ threats to their families, but also the truck drivers themselves see the danger of getting involved. (Truck Driver #11, 2015)

Many drivers are ready and willing to help in instances
 of people needing assistance and there was a sense of community they longed for which is very different than the general public’s perception of drivers. One driver even mentioned, “…your app truly has the potential to make a huge difference, this is yet another way that can be used to help demonstrate that drivers have an interest in their local communities, that they’re a part of the community.” (Truck Driver #13, 2014)OperationCompassNTX_Mockup

Current Phase

The mobile application was titled Operation Compass and released on the Apple app store and Google Play in December of 2015. It received its first incident report on Christmas Day, December 25, 2015. Operation Compass became a non-profit and in January of 2016 established a collaborative partnership with Mosaic, a Dallas-based organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking. This collaboration is a pilot program, using Operation Compass as a study titled Operation Compass North Texas. Mosaic receives all instances submitted through the mobile application Operation Compass North Texas and it is currently Mosaic’s responsibility to share information with the Dallas Police Department as they deem necessary. We have a working relationship with the Dallas Police Department and made sure each sector was represented in meetings for law enforcement, service providers, and people reporting suspected instances when important decisions were being made for this pilot study. The mobile application is on approximately 1100 mobile devices and has been launched nearly 2200 times.