Project Galileo Spotlight: Samaritans
Cloudflare Head of Policy Alissa Starzak and Samaritans Assistant Director of Digital Services and Change Francis Bacon will talk about how the hotline has seen an uptick in calls since the pandemic began. They will also discuss how resources for mental health are now more essential than ever and how they've enabled their employees to continue providing support while being distributed.
So I think we're going to go ahead and get started. So I'm Alissa Starzak. I'm Cloudflare's Head of Public Policy, and I'm here with Francis Bacon, who is the Assistant Director of Digital Services at Samaritans.
And I'm going to start, Francis, by asking you about what exactly is Samaritans, particularly for non-UK viewers.
Yeah, sure. We're very pleased to be here. Samaritans is a charity that works across the UK and the Republic of Ireland to reduce the number of people who take their lives by suicide.
I think we're most well known for our 24-hour listening service, where members of the public can call and receive emotional support from a volunteer.
And that's open 24-7, 365 days a year. And people can contact on the phone, they can contact by email, or they can go into one of our branches and receive support face to face.
But we also do other work, too. We do work in the community, we do work in prisons, we do work in schools, we campaign as well to make suicide prevention a priority.
So that's what we do as an organization. And you do amazing, amazing work.
I mean, you help so many people a year, and you have a tremendous amount of volunteers.
And so just in terms of the normal services, somebody calls in and they can just talk about anything, right?
How does that work, actually, in practice?
Yeah, so if someone wants to call, they simply dial the number, and it's free to call.
And the Samaritan volunteer will pick up the phone and say, Hello, I'm listening.
And you as a member of public can talk about anything that's on your mind.
And people might call, they might call because they're anxious, or they've got something on their mind, or they might call just because they need some human contact and someone to hear what's troubling them.
And the volunteer will listen, won't advise, won't be judgmental, won't steer the conversation, but will just listen and provide that emotional support.
And we hear that a lot of people find that extremely valuable when they've got no one else to talk to about something.
Well, I would imagine now, here we are in the time of a pandemic, you have all these people in isolated, I mean, this is probably, I imagine you've probably seen a spike in people who want to see it, even if they're not, even if they don't have suicidal ideations, you have to imagine that there's just a lot of isolation right now, right?
Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, there's, there's clearly a lot of anxiety around and the pandemic and the isolation from the lockdown is kind of clearly affecting everyone.
I mean, we've found that one in three contacts that we have are now about coronavirus.
So it's really on people's minds and they're wanting to talk about it.
So what kind of people call in? I mean, so, you know, you get a lot of, across the UK, lots of different kinds of people, I imagine.
Do you, obviously you want to maintain people's privacy, but do you have a sense of demographics of who calls in most and what it looks like?
Has it changed?
Yeah, I mean, our service is, it is pretty unique in that it really is there for everyone.
You know, a lot of, a lot of organizations, whether they're, I guess, private sector or even charities often end up focusing on particular groups in society.
But there's something, there's something special about Samaritans, it's really there for everyone, whoever wants to call.
Because confidentiality is such an important part of our service, we take a bit of care about the kind of data that we capture.
And we, we really want to, to minimize that as much as possible so that we're respecting the confidentiality of the call.
So we're open to everyone. We have, we have calls from, from, from everyone.
We know that in society, some groups are at high risk of suicide. So middle aged men in particular are a high risk group.
And we're seeing what work we can do.
And we've recently done some research as well to support, support that group.
So how do you actually meld research in with the work that you're doing on the, on the very proactive outside?
So you obviously, you know things, you know what might work.
How do you put the two together? How do you combine the research with, with, with what you're doing and when people call in?
Yeah, great question.
I suppose it starts by saying that our volunteers are highly trained.
They go through an eight week training program before they're ready to support a caller.
And that training is, is evidence based and is updated when there's new research.
But we also use research when we're developing new services. So we've been working quite hard on developing a new online chat service so that people can contact us by going to our website.
And we also just launched a self -help app as well.
So if someone feels like they're not quite ready to speak to someone else, but they want to do some online activities and, and explore some tools to help them think through certain problems that they can do that.
And all of those new services are research based, both from, I guess, academic literature, but also from what you would think of as more user research type activities where we, we sit down with the types of people who might be using those services and co -create it with them.
So, so explain the app actually. So, so now you've just launched this new app, this amazing new app.
What does it do? How do you, how does it work in practice?
You know, how do you process the information? Is it really just for the user?
What does it look like? Yeah, sure. I mean, that's a pretty exciting development for us.
And I think as an organization who, for a long time, our listening service has been central to what we do.
Now having this other app is a, is a, is a big step for us.
And we're kindly been supported by a couple of big funders in the, in the UK.
So Nominet and the National Lottery have supported the development.
So basically, yeah, there are a few different features in the app. As a user, you can, you can log in, you can track your mood, which we know is something that people find useful to understand how their mood might vary day by day.
There are, there are techniques which are based on some quite well established reflective exercises to help individuals think through the situations that they're in, and sort of play them back, which can be quite a useful activity.
And then there are also things in there like a safety plan.
So if someone is feeling a bit, is feeling more distressed, they have a route into the Samaritan services.
And we've got things in there like things to remember, things to keep you hopeful, which I think a lot of people find valuable.
So it's, it's, it's early days for the app. We launched it just two or three weeks ago.
And we're trying to make improvements. Exactly.
Yeah, I mean, we bought it for, because we, because of what's going on at the moment.
But I think it's pretty exciting. We want to grow it, we want it, we want it to be even bigger.
And we want people to be able to access our other services through it as well.
So I think it's an important step for us. Well, that's the way of tying things together, right?
One of the things that we actually talked about before the call is how you tie tech and sort of the things that you're working on together.
And that seems like if you can build the app into the other services that you're offering, that is exactly what that does, right?
Is that, so you get the benefit of both.
Yeah, exactly. And I think, you know, I was describing to someone else the other day that it has the potential, we don't know if we're going to go this direction, but it has potential of turning for us the world inside out.
So I think, you know, we've for a long time, the telephone service has been our central service.
And that will, that will remain for many years, probably our highest volume channel, the way that people want to reach us.
But for some people who live online, picking up the phone isn't necessarily what they want to do.
It's not something that would feel natural. And actually an app or a website could become, I suppose, the whole frame of their interaction with us as an organization.
And so we have to turn ourselves inside out and put everything in there.
So is that the idea to link the chat function in? So I totally agree.
I think that we have different generations. So you have an older generation that's very comfortable talking on the phone.
And then you have a younger generation who's sort of normal personal interaction is text.
And it's a big deal to get on the phone.
And you have, you know, this sort of whole range in between. But so on the app, does the app tie in with the chat function itself?
Is that how it works?
Well, that's one of the parts that we want to explore going down. Yeah. So we, we ran some pilots of our online chat service last year, that was really successful.
And part of part of launching our online chat service is about training our volunteers and getting them ready so that they feel comfortable providing support on that medium.
We're looking to do the proper launch probably in a couple of months time.
And once we've got that up and going, we want to make it 24 seven service.
And just as you say, include it in the app as well. So that's another way in, which is amazing, right?
That's the again, the combination. So with the app in the works before COVID, was it or was it something that you said you brought it forward?
So it was it so you had you had talked about it, and then it wasn't gonna be quite ready.
Is that what happened? Yeah, no, we've been working on about a year and a half before that.
There's a lot of work's gone into it.
I think we, you know, when you're getting close to the launch of something, you've got that choice, do you want to spend a little bit more time building out future functionality, or do you want to launch it at that point, and then build, build and do further releases.
And we thought, let's do the latter.
Let's, let's get it out there so that people can start benefiting from it now.
Which is great. You also have sort of a really interesting partnership with, with any with NHS in the, in the UK, or not partnership, I guess, but focused on NHS, right?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. I think, you know, when when Coronavirus news was, was kind of hitting us here in the UK, I think there was a lot of concern at the start about the toll that it would take on our National Health Service, and, and the workers, the workers there, you know, and we've seen the sort of stories since about not just the workload, but the types of decisions and types of environments that health workers have been in and the, and the personal emotional toll that that that that imposes on on those individuals.
So, so we wanted to have a have a service that they could call.
So we launched a new number that NHS workers could call and could receive support.
And that's been that's been really successful.
And that's another difference with that one has been because some of our volunteers, because they themselves are self isolating, they haven't been able to go into branch.
And so we had to quickly kind of spin up some technology so that those volunteers could could take those calls.
And so that's been a great way of them being able to continue to to volunteer and provide the service to so it's, it's been a bit of a win win.
That's definitely just is that something you think you'll continue.
So I imagine, even after, even after that, hopefully, at some point we get a, at some point we get a vaccination or we get something that that helps us on that on that on this particular virus.
But do you, I mean, I imagine there is still pressure in that community.
How do you think about maintaining special networks for certain particularly vulnerable communities?
Yeah, well, interesting question.
I think, I think certainly that line is going to stay open for the next 10-12 months, I would think, because we, you know, it may be that some of the emotional effects and the mental health effects, you know, stay with people for a long time.
So I think we want to we want to continue to be there. But yeah, as a general direction of travel.
I think we are, we continue to look at opportunities to maintain our, our broad nature so that we are there for everyone and that anyone can contact us.
But we're also able to present our services and create new services that are tailored for people in particular circumstances.
So that people know that they can, that they can call us.
So how do you, how do you figure out what might work for different populations?
So I mean, this going back to the the online app for in the chat.
So, so as you sort of look out into the future, what does that look like?
How do you figure out who you target and who might be most vulnerable?
How do you figure out what the best way to reach them might be? How do you think about that?
How do you even plan for it? Yeah, well, another great question.
I guess, you know, it's really important to work closely with my research colleagues.
We have a research team at Samaritans and they're well networked in with, with, with other researchers and with, with academia as well.
I think, I think for us, we, we, we need to look at what are the different risk groups and the different risk factors and what's, what's known about why people have different feelings, which might, which might subsequently lead to thoughts of wanting to take their life.
So, so that's a, there's a certain amount that's known there, there are certain gaps as well.
So I think organizationally, we, we try and do both.
We try and fill those research gaps. And where there is something that we can work from, we, we then use that to develop new services.
There's probably something as well about us working in partnership with other organizations too.
We were talking just before this call about partnerships between different charities.
That's the, that's the opportunity that we've got in the charitable sector, unlike private companies that are necessarily always competing, we've got more opportunity to collaborate.
So I think we'll be looking to do that too.
So actually, let's talk about that collaboration piece, because I think, you know, there are all these different potential ways to collaborate.
You're all trying to, you all have different, potentially different missions, but all trying to help people in a variety of different ways.
How do you find the right ways to get together?
How do you find programs that might make sense from a partnership?
How much of it is just information sharing? What does it actually look like?
Yeah, great, great question. So, I mean, I suppose there are some formal structures.
There's, there are things like there is a, there is a Suicide Prevention Alliance, which the Americans host, which is a, is a group of organizations that get together and would do information sharing or would plan programs together.
But, you know, I don't think people would be surprised to hear that it's often as well about personal relationships or chance encounters as well, which can, can often lead to opportunities.
So I think, you know, my take is we need to be using all of those different, different approaches to, to find, find, find ways forward.
But yeah, I mean, some of the informal stuff can be, whether it's kind of sharing lessons learned, you know, pointing towards particular suppliers or thinking about joint projects, that often happens through people who are doing the day-to-day work and getting together and doing that informally.
So I'm actually going to shift to the tech side of that, and maybe even some of the defensive services.
So you're obviously a member of Project Galileo. We think a lot about what that looks like in the threat space.
So talk a little bit about, about what you see in the threat space, how you protect yourself.
You obviously have incredibly sensitive conversations.
How do you make that work in a way that you're comfortable as an organization?
And obviously the people who call in or participate are comfortable.
Yeah, yeah. Well, firstly, just to say we're so grateful to be part of Project Galileo.
And I think, you know, that's, it's an incredible kind of act of support from, from, from yourself.
So that's something we're really grateful for.
I think the security thing for us starts, starts as you're hinting at, that from the nature of our service, you know, confidentiality is right at the core of what we provide.
People, people are only going to trust that they can call us and they can receive support if they know that that is, that that is safe.
And, and that what they, what they say and what they talk about will just be between them and the volunteer who's listening.
So I think that's the kind of, that's, that's our starting point for it.
And, and we've been paying a lot of attention to security recently.
I think like all organizations, it's something that we're looking to get better at, and we need to try and keep pace with the changing environment.
And looking at things like Cloudflare is one of the, one of the ways that we protect our services.
We did, we, we work with a number of partners on regular testing, giving us advice on our architecture.
And we have, we have oversight from experts as well.
So all form part of the picture of providing that secure framework.
You know, I think, unfortunately, one of the things that we've seen in the pandemic is that we've actually seen some cyber tech attacks on, on health organizations and just organizations doing incredibly important work during this time, which is a horrible, horrible thing.
Have you seen some of those?
Is it hopefully not? Or is it sort of been that the normal set of, of just sort of low level attacks?
Has it changed at all? Yeah, I think it's one of those things where we've just seen the trend of increasing number of attacks over the years.
And, you know, we were saying before this call, it's, it's completely indiscriminatory, isn't it?
It pays no attention to the type of organization that you're, that you're in.
If there's a chance you might hold personal data, I think you're, you're a threat, essentially.
So, so yeah, I think that's a, that's a sort of upward trend.
And as I say, it's something we need to need to keep pace with.
So on the, on the advancement on the tech, tech side, so you have this great new app, you have this new great new chat function coming.
Where else are you going?
What else are you thinking about doing about marrying tech with all these incredible services that you have?
Yeah, I think, I mean, I think the big picture thing is, is saying, making sure that our services are, I suppose, relevant for whoever might want to contact us.
And also the sort of people who might want to volunteer for us as well, because we've got, we've got 20,000 volunteers, fantastic people who keep the whole organization going.
And we always need new volunteers coming through as well.
So we need to make sure that volunteer experience is, is kind of up to scratch as well.
So I see in some of the future, I think, for members of the public, we probably need to keep ensuring that we're in the right places.
Online chat is the first step in that, but, you know, I guess the kind of, the way that people are conversing is completely fragmenting.
If you look at someone's phone, they've got like 100 different messaging apps or whatever.
So we need to figure out which ones of those are we going to be on, which social media spaces, which online spaces are we going to have a presence.
And I think there's a, there's a big future for us there to step into to be in the right places, and to be there at the moments that people need us.
And then, yeah, and then on the volunteer side, we want to make sure that when someone indicates an interest in becoming a Samaritan's Volunteer, that that whole journey is as streamlined as possible, so they can come in, they can, they can get skilled up.
And I think people come in with high expectations of the tools, of the systems, that things are going to work well together, and we've got to keep going to kind of match those expectations.
Do you see, on that sort of division between the volunteer side and the people who might call in side, the people who actually need services, is the outreach in similar places?
So when you're thinking about social media, you know, when you look, a volunteer is looking to say, yes, I want to volunteer, do you see people normally come in through a website?
Do they call in about volunteering?
You know, how does, how do people even indicate their interest in volunteering?
Is it the same social media that you might be using for outreach to participants, or is it different?
Yeah, I mean, people, people come from all places, and they come from online, they'll also come from our local branches.
So we have 200 local branches across towns and cities in the UK and Ireland, and people will, will, will kind of go direct to branches as well as, as well as kind of through social media or whatever.
So yeah, all sorts.
And I think that's, you know, at that kind of scale, 20,000 volunteers doing something which is, you know, I think you can frame as kind of critical infrastructure.
I think it's really important that we, we, that our volunteer base represents our communities as well.
So it's really important that people come from, from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, and that we're reflecting the communities that we serve.
Right. Yeah, absolutely. Well, and your point about that, that the tech has to support them, right?
I mean, they have to be in place for the tech works as well.
So it's the, they are the, they are, they will be the front always for the organization, because of the people who, if people who call in, those are people they'll interact with, but they, they have to have systems back, I would imagine.
That's, that's probably key to how the whole piece works together, right?
Yes, exactly. And I think, you know, we also have people of a wide range of kind of digital confidence and digital capability.
So, absolutely, you know, people have very high expectations, may actually not necessarily have matching capability.
And some of our processes and some of the things that we're asking people to do are relatively complex as well.
So, so yeah, we've got, we've got a number of different challenges there to provide.
I suppose you might think of it as like a sort of consumer-like experience for people, because they have those expectations.
So we've been doing a lot of stuff about that, about, as I say, the recruitment journey, but also things like our internal systems, our intranets, our collaboration platform, and so on.
So going back to that idea of what the nonprofit tech world looks like.
So, you know, it's, I imagine it's somewhat of a small community.
But nonprofits have to be struggling with some of the same things, particularly when you get into internal systems.
How do you build an internal system that's secure?
A lot of nonprofits are set up with a mission, but not necessarily with this sort of tech background.
And some of them might be small and resource constrained.
So how does that work in practice? I mean, so Samaritan's doing really well in that perspective.
How do you make sure that you share across different nonprofits?
But just what does that whole world look like? It's another really good one.
I know, I think it's an area that's changing quite a lot at the moment.
There are some big funders that are trying to get together to help the sector collaborate more.
I mean, we, I suppose, you know, people won't be surprised to hear that there's a kind of spectrum of organizations, isn't there?
And an organization like Samaritan's, although I think, you know, we feel very constrained by money and resource to do the things that we want to do.
Actually, compared to a lot of charitable organizations, we're probably seen as quite big.
We've only got about 150 staff, but the number of volunteers and so on probably puts us at that end of the spectrum.
There are some charities that are significantly bigger than us.
But I think the point is, there's also kind of a long tail and quite a lot of very small charities as well.
So this isn't something that I would call myself an expert in or know what the solution is.
But I suspect part of the real challenge with having the nonprofit sector collaborate better and share more is what's the right way of matching and doing that sharing between completely different sized organizations where you've got a few relatively big ones who have professional staff who can work together.
You've got this long tail of much smaller organizations that are on a different scale.
And working all that out, you need someone cleverer than me to figure that one out.
But, you know, so much of it is actually, we've found in Project Yellow, some of it is about trust between different organizations as well.
So, you know, we have people come in because they know a larger organization that has worked with us before.
And so there's definitely a trust factor, I think, in the community that helps a lot.
We talk formally and we talk informally, sharing tips on supplies, on agencies and solutions and on projects.
And I think it's often that kind of slightly more informal trust and relationships between individuals that make sure that we're collaborating in the right way.
Right. Do you ever have people reach out because they, you know, they're in crisis at that time?
So, you know, in that sort of world, or is it really proactive building of new structures?
So, you know, we're building it out, too.
We want to hear about your experiences. Or is it, hey, we're under threat.
Have you guys seen a similar threat? What sort of, is it collaboration across the board or one area more than another?
I think, I think the sort of threat sharing, security threat sharing is relatively underdeveloped.
Yeah, I think we've seen in some sectors and I think supported by government.
Some of that has been better developed, but I haven't come across it as much in the UK.
The non-profit sector, that proactive threat sharing, I think it's probably an opportunity there for us to do better there.
Yeah, so I think it's more conversations around different technology choices and probably around different change approaches, too.
There's quite a big theme at the moment on how does, how can technology support positive organisational change?
Because I think that's really what we're trying to get at.
We're not trying to get at tech for tech's sake.
We're trying to get at more flexible organisations, more adaptable organisations, services that are more relevant to people's lives.
And that's an organisational change problem.
That's a people, culture, governance problem. And there's a lot that can be learned from one organisation to another with that stuff.
Well, and it's a shift challenge, right?
I mean, tech is constantly shifting. What people use is constantly shifting.
So it's keeping up with something that is moving all the time.
So you have people, I have this in my own family, my parents versus my kids, the reality of their different exposure to tech and familiarity and comfort.
And an organisation looks the same way. So I imagine you have the same thing, right?
You're in a world of trying to figure out how you shift around and get organisational change while still keeping people comfortable with what they have.
Absolutely. And maybe you're hinting that, you know, there's always another shiny thing as well.
It's always like a new social network or messaging platform or ideas someone's had.
And knowing when to take that up or when to kind of stick to the plan is always a tricky one as well.
I think, you know, I think for us, things like online chat, you know, many organisations will be able to create an online chat customer service function pretty quickly.
It's not like the technology is particularly hard.
I think we found that similarly, it's not like the technology is hard, it's making sure that our 20,000 volunteers feel ready, are trained, are supported.
And we're able to do it at scale. And we're able to handle that with the kind of volumes that we expect.
So, yeah, you can't, you can't flit about too much.
You've got to stick to it. You're right. It's 20,000, training 20,000 people is not a small exercise.
So, yeah, definitely. It helps that they all want to do it.
That's definitely true. Well, thank you so much, Francis. It's great to have you on.
Thanks. Thanks a lot.