Main content

Supporting trans people and victims of abuse through intelligent web services

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 18, 2021
We explore what three different NGOs are doing with web services APIs to try to ensure the safety of the vulnerable populations they serve.

Image of a hand touching the word help
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

While technology all too often seems to be in the headlines for negative social reasons, such as people trolling and bullying each other via social media, it can also play a useful role in safeguarding vulnerable individuals too.

Within this context, the importance of thinking through different approaches to enabling the confidentiality of those who need support and/or have been subjected to different forms of abuse cannot be underestimated.

One organization that is doing just that is the US-based Trans Lifeline, which was founded in 2014 to provide peer-based support to members of the trans community. Its largest service consists of the first hotline in North America to be run by trans people for trans people, and for which anonymity and informed consent is a core tenet.

The service is staffed by a mixture of employees and volunteers from across the US and Canada, who all work from home. When someone calls the hotline, they are connected to an operator using the conference function of Twilio's web services API suite without their phone number being revealed to anyone. Yana Calou, PR director at the not-for profit organization, explains:

The software allows us to work remotely, which means we can recruit employees and volunteers from around the country to do shifts. The incoming calls are routed to different operators, but callers retain both anonymity and confidentiality. The operators, who use pseudonyms during calls, also remain anonymous as it's important for them to have their confidentiality maintained too. 

We don't retain any identifying information about callers, such as area codes, and they only share what they want to - although it's up to them if they choose to talk about their location, for example, if they're looking for help in finding hormone therapy or a support group locally. Protecting people's identities allows us to have a fully caller-led formula in the way we take calls, which is very helpful as a lot of people are questioning.

Other benefits of the software, meanwhile, include being able to monitor call volumes in order to ensure adequate staffing levels as well as create dedicated lines for different services. For example, web services APIs were used to introduce the helpline's first Spanish language service last July, which means callers are now rerouted to other Spanish speakers at the press of a button.

Similar work is also taking place to reroute the existing ‘family and friends' service. This line is staffed by people with experience of supporting transgender loved ones in crisis so that callers do not have to default to the police, an important consideration as Calou points out:

Much has been written about the exposure to police violence experienced by people of color, but trans people and those struggling with mental illness are also disproportionately targeted for violence or criminalisation too - and when there's a mental health crisis, the police are not the best first responders.

Meanwhile, this summer the Trans Lifeline is also due to launch its first trans-led and trans-specific service in the US focusing on domestic and intimate partner violence following a spike in aggression of nearly 300% in the first couple of months of the pandemic alone.

It is likewise currently evaluating how best to introduce direct messaging, internet chat and text messaging services without revealing users' IP addresses or phone numbers. The aim here is to increase access for those who may, for whatever reason, not be in a position to call directly.

Maintaining anonymity at RAINN

Another not-for-profit organisation that has taken a similar approach to confidentiality is RAIIN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual violence body in the US. It has about 250 employees and 4,000 volunteers, around 400 of which staff its 30 or so hotlines, including those that are advertised by employers as a confidential service.

Last year, RAIIN's victim services programme supported 232,000 survivors and their loved ones. This is double the number five years ago, says Scott Berkowitz, the organization's founder and president, because, as increasing levels of attention have been paid to the issue of sexual violence over recent times, people have started to feel more comfortable in seeking help.

But the scale of the problem is huge. Someone is assaulted in the US every 58 seconds, he explains, with a one in six lifetime risk for women and a one in 33 risk for men.

To try and help address this situation, the organization enables people to contact it either via SMS or phone. All calls are routed to its call center in Washington DC via Twilio's API, before being passed to an available operator, a process that helps to not only save time but also boosts efficiency.

People adopting the text message approach can either have a RAINN operator call them back on an appropriate number or simply put in a request for information. For example, if they are willing to share their location, details of appropriate local services, such as healthcare providers or the police, will be sent to them.

But as with the Trans Lifeline, the sensitivity of the issues being dealt with means anonymity is a crucial consideration. Berkowitz explains:

One of the nice things about using this software is that we're able to offer people anonymity and then quickly purge any data so there's no record - numbers are masked and we don't record any information about callers. Another important tool is our database of resources and referral information, so we're able to give staff and volunteers standard responses that can be inserted into conversations and edited as appropriate. It helps with quality control by ensuring they give out accurate information and also enables us to refer people on to community services for help.

Into the future though, because about half of sexual abuse survivors are under 18 and tend to be early adopters of technology, the aim is to work with social media platforms, such as TikTok, to promote the organization's hotlines and "help get information out there", says Berkowitz.

Tackling domestic abuse and stalking with Hollie Guard

A UK-based charity that has taken a rather different approach to the sexual violence issue is the Hollie Gazzard Trust. It was set up in 2014 by the parents of the eponymous hairdresser, who was murdered at the age of 20 by her partner, with the aim of helping to reduce domestic violence and stalking.

On average one in three women and one in six men experience sexual abuse during their lifetime, while 1.5 million people in England and Wales are subjected to stalking each year

So to try to tackle the problem, the Trust has chosen to focus on three key areas: raising awareness of the issues; providing accredited training courses and workshops to educate individuals and the business community; and safeguarding vulnerable people by means of a smartphone app developed with personal safety system provider, PanicGuard.

The consumer version of the Hollie Guard app is made available on a free-of-charge basis for iOS and Android phone users to ensure it is accessible to anyone who needs it no matter what their income bracket. The app has now been downloaded about 250,000 times.

As to how it works, when an individual intends to make a journey, Twilio's SMS function notifies their chosen emergency contact(s) and automatically sends an alert should they fail to arrive at their destination at the stated time. As Nick Gazzard, founder of the Trust, explains:

Although our original target was domestic abuse and stalking, we realized that, had Hollie had the journey function, it would have shown she didn't reach her destination. So it's all about making sure women and girls feel safer.

A ‘man-down' service likewise sends an alert if someone hits the ground and does not get up within a specified timeframe, but it is also possible to activate the app by shaking the device too.

Defending the vulnerable with Hollie Guard Extra and Business

In return for £79 per year or £7.99 per month, it is now possible to sign up to a Hollie Guard Extra 24/7 monitoring service too. In the event of an incident, this provides immediate access to a dedicated emergency response team, which assesses the individual's situation and takes appropriate action.

The Extra app also enables them to log the time and date of any incident, which includes photos that are automatically categorised, time stamped and geo tagged, making them admissible in court as evidence.

Another recent addition to the stable, meanwhile, is a business version of the app. This was created not only to help finance the consumer release, but also to coincide with the enactment of the UK's Domestic Abuse Bill, which was given Royal Assent at the end of April. Among other things, the new Act requires both public and private sector bodies to provide statistical information on the extent of their own domestic abuse problem. Gazzard says:

Hollie Guard helps to support businesses as they now have to ensure they look after staff both inside and outside of work in relation to domestic abuse. So while there's a charge for that, they get monitoring centre access and dashboards so they can monitor what's happening anonymously. Data security is accredited and the system is cloud-based, so we can provide information to the authorities whenever necessary. There are about nine million lone workers in the UK - some go out on site or visit customers and they're not protected. But Hollie Guard can do that.

While users currently have to shake their phone to send an alert, the Trust is also developing a button that can be attached to jumpers or shirts, although it is currently lacking the funding to pilot it. As Gazzard concludes though:

One of the big things with stalking and domestic abuse that we wanted to change was the perception that technology is used for negative things like tracking or stalking people. So our aim was to turn that view around and use technology in a positive way that makes a real difference to people's lives.

My take

What each of these case studies makes plain is that the judicious use of technology, applied appropriately, can help make a significant difference to the lives of thousands of vulnerable individuals around the world.

A grey colored placeholder image