Merging Humanity with Technology

Daniel Stensland is the son of a Georgia Tech alumnus. Of his two brothers, one is a Tech graduate, the other soon will be. All four Stensland men are Eagle Scouts.

Two things were probable for Daniel, who grew up in Kennesaw, Ga.: That he would attend Georgia Tech, and that he would tackle a project befitting his Scouting achievements. Both came to pass.

Stensland, a senior Computational Media major, always figured the Georgia Tech path was pre-ordained. As for the other, he’s devoted himself to more than one Eagle Scout-worthy endeavor. He’s worked with Hands On Atlanta, and during summer 2008 he spent a few weeks working for the Red Cross in Iowa to help flood victims. For two weeks, he and about 80 other volunteers slept on cots in a high school gym doing client case work.

“The average age [of the volunteers] was about 65,” says Stensland, who—by equal virtue of his age and his course of study—was drafted to help the other volunteers navigate the Red Cross’ computer client tracking system. “I escalated through the ranks pretty quickly because of my ability to use those technical devices.”

Daniel Stensland
 

Now he’s pulling together some fellow students to confront another societal issue, this one with a face more sinister than natural disasters: human trafficking. The U.S. State Department estimates that some 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked worldwide each year, and as many as 17,500 of those individuals move through the United States. Some organizations estimate the global number of trafficked persons in the millions. These are typically people from vulnerable populations (such as children or the poor) who are forced into servitude as prostitutes, agricultural or domestic workers, mail-order brides, or other roles.

Non-governmental organizations have formed to address “modern slavery,” as it’s called. But Stensland points out that, in an age of ubiquitous electronic communication, these NGOs rely on outdated technologies to coordinate their activities—if they do so at all.

That’s where Stensland’s idea comes in. It’s called Humanitech, a budding organization that calls upon computing students to lend their expertise (in areas such as software development and website design, for example) to organizations that advance the social good. Stensland came up with the idea during fall 2008 and spent the following spring recruiting help. Humanitech has a core group of perhaps 10 people, he says, with another dozen or so interested.

“We’re still in the starting stages,” he admits. “We’ve been talking to students, but it can be tough. [We’re saying] ‘In addition to this horrible workload you have at Tech [from classes], I have some more work for you to do.’ We’re hoping to tap into the people who are activists.”

Daniel Stensland

Senior Daniel Stensland has pulled together a group of students to form Humanitech, which applies technology to battle human trafficking.

 

Stensland envisions Humanitech making an impact on human trafficking by setting up some kind of digital platform or exchange to help related NGOs get in tune with each other. The idea may be in its larval stage, but it’s getting some support from faculty who know a thing or two about computing for good.

“By choosing human trafficking, Humanitech has decided to tackle a critical and deeply challenging problem,” says Assistant Professor Michael Best, who has a joint appointment in Interactive Computing and the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.  “An effective response to human trafficking requires as large a network, with as much information coordination and outreach, as is already employed within the criminal trafficking networks themselves. That is why the work of technologists, including computer scientists, is so necessary.”

Best, who has been one of the early drivers of the College’s C4G (Computing for Good) and Computing at the Margins efforts, won Georgia Tech’s 2009 Ivan Allen Award for his civic leadership. “Humanitech’s mission,” he says, “echoes my core passion: a critical examination of the ways information and communication technologies can help solve some of humanity’s biggest problems.”

Stensland hopes at least to start making that impact before he graduates in May 2010. After that, he plans to join the Peace Corps, though he has no particular destination in mind. “Where I go is not as important as what I’m doing,” he says. “I want the independence to be able to work on issues as they arise in the best way I know how.”

After that, his long-term options are wide open. But one more thing is probable: With a Georgia Tech degree in hand, a handful of quality volunteer projects under his belt and a few years of Peace Corps experience behind him, Daniel Stensland will be prepared for what life throws at him.