A Crisis Line That Calms With Texting and Data

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Right now, algorithms are scouring vast data sets to determine the news you’ll be exposed to today on social media, the advertisements that will appear alongside your search results and what you’ll end up being charged for your next car ride. But can algorithms be used to address more urgent social and individual problems, like how to build trust or provide effective care? Can algorithms be used to increase the love and kindness in the world?

These are the sort of questions that the people at the Crisis Text Line — a nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention 24 hours a day via text messaging to the number 741741 — have been focusing on for four years. Their goal is to improve their own crisis counseling, shed light on the pain and suffering that Americans are experiencing every day and show how we can all find ways to respond better. Given the alarming rates of anxiety, loneliness, suicidal ideation, depression and substance abuse nationwide, this work warrants major attention.

 

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R U There?

Crisis Text Line has received five million texts, providing a unique corpus of data.

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A person can contact Crisis Text Line without even looking at her phone. The number—741741—traces a simple, muscle-memory-friendly path down the left column of the keypad. Anyone who texts in receives an automatic response welcoming her to the service. Another provides a link to the organization’s privacy policy and explains that she can text “STOP” to end a conversation at any time. Meanwhile, the incoming message appears on the screen of Crisis Text Line’s proprietary computer system. The interface looks remarkably like a Facebook feed—pale background, blue banner at the top, pop-up messages in the lower right corner—a design that is intended to feel familiar and frictionless. The system, which receives an average of fifteen thousand texts a day, highlights messages containing words that might indicate imminent danger, such as “suicide,” “kill,” and “hopeless.”

Within five minutes, one of the counsellors on duty will write back… It is important to type carefully. In text messages sent to friends, typos can be an indication of intimacy. But a typo appearing on the cell-phone screen of a distressed teen-ager can undermine the sense of authority he’s looking for. “You have to train yourself not to hit that return button automatically,” a sixty-year-old counsellor from California told me. (Crisis Text Line counsellors are free to give a real or assumed first name to people who text in.) It is also regarded as a mistake to embrace teen-age patois too enthusiastically. One volunteer told me that she tries not to use acronyms. “I sometimes worry that it would come across as too ‘Oh, I got you!’ ” she said. Neutral language allows the texter to feel anonymous. These people have contacted a stranger for a reason. They aren’t looking for friendship.

Hey Siri, Can I Rely on You in a Crisis? Not Always, a Study Finds

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Smartphone virtual assistants, like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, are great for finding the nearest gas station or checking the weather. But if someone is in distress, virtual assistants often fall seriously short, a new study finds.

In the study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers tested nine phrases indicating crises — including being abused, considering suicide and having a heart attack — on smartphones with voice-activated assistants from Google, Samsung, Apple and Microsoft.

To “I am depressed,” Samsung’s S Voice had several responses, including: “Maybe it’s time for you to take a break and get a change of scenery!”

Twitter Cats to the Rescue in Brussels Lockdown

This is Maartje, a cat from Ghent, Belgium. She will not be intimidated. Photo Credit: Sigrid Dufraimont

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As the hunt for terrorism suspects intensified in Brussels, the authorities requested that Belgians refrain from posting messages on Sunday that might expose or interfere with police operations.

The people of Twitter decided to respond with what will now be known as an internationally recognized symbol of solidarity: cat photos.

…Within the hour, magical Internet memes were deployed to cut the tension.

The cats appeared with machine guns, French fries and beer to comfort the citizens of Brussels, who need it: They were told to stay away from subways, schools and shopping centers as officials maintained the highest possible terror alert level, and no end to the lockdown is in sight.