Crisis Text Line: Giving Twilio justification for the 'tech making the world a better place' meme

Pretty much every technology company I've ever come across purports to be making a difference in the world. Here's an example where that is a justifiable claim.

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While attending Twilio's Signal conference recently, I was interested in a departure from the usual technology conference norm of arm-waving and product announcements with the main stage presentation by Nancy Lublin from Crisis Text Line.

Crisis Text Line is a beneficiary of Twilio's corporate social initiatives, in this case, the Twilio.org social good initiative. It is an almost perfect use case for both Twilio's platform and the good that can come from corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Twilio is, of course, a developer platform that specialized in communications services. What that means is that if you're a developer that wants to include voice, mobile, chat or SMS within your application, rather than creating all that functionality from scratch, you simply integrate with Twilio's services and take advantage of their specialization -- a case of abstracting non-core requirements to a third party vendor.

In the case of Crisis Text Line, as the name implies, Twilio's platform offers a broad SMS feature set. Crisis Text Line was founded back in 2013 and has a singular mission: to give individuals in a crisis situation access to a counselor that they can communicate with. Since its inception, the organization has handled over 28 million text messages. This workload is handled by 50 employees and almost 2600 crisis counselors who commit to a period of training and a weekly time commitment of four hours.

The model is very simple -- via a single text number (741741), individuals from throughout the US.. can contact a counselor at any time of the day or night. Text messages are triaged by Crisis Text Lines' automated systems (more on that later) and responded to -- 80% of messages are responded to by a counselor in under five minutes. The goal of Crisis Text Line is not to provide therapy but to empower texters to find their own solution by reminding them of their strength as well as uncovering what their coping skills are.

Counselors embark on a "conversation" with service users, generally of around a 40-60 message duration. This number of messages has been found an ideal length to move the texter from a "hot" to a "cool" moment. In plain English, what that means is in the space of 40-60 messages, a counselor can take an individual that is considering suicide, is in an unsafe sexual or physical abuse situation, is in a drug-use situation or some other crisis, to safety.

In terms of how the system works, individuals sending an initial text receive an automated text asking them what your crisis is. Using Twilio's platform, and some smart machine learning and sentiment analysis technology, that initial text is triaged to levels of criticality. Within minutes, a live trained crisis counselor will answer the text. 

Crisis Text Line does not charge its users and individuals with mobile plans on AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint or Verizon do not pay a charge to send a text. Similarly, customers of those mobile operators will not show a record of a Crisis Text Line SMS on their bill -- ensuring discretion and privacy.

In her fairly raw presentation, Lublin gave some examples of interventions that Crisis Text Line has undertaken. While they always try and encourage the texter to take action on their own behalf, when they are unwilling or unable to do so, Crisis Text Line will activate an "active rescue," notifying the relevant authorities of the situation and ensuring a speedy resolution. We heard of one example where a young girl was removed from a situation where drug use and sexual abuse from a step-parent was an ongoing experience.

But beyond the obvious service of providing text-based counseling to at-risk individuals, Crisis Text Line also has other, less obvious ways of helping. It anonymizes and aggregates all its data and is working with various governmental authorities to derive insights -- for example, the high incidence of suicides on the Caltrain network in California, or empirical data around teen suicides by motor vehicle accident.

Sometimes the technology industry, focused as it so often is on mundane and unimportant outcomes, is jading. Seeing an organization like Crisis Text Line leverage technology to deliver the incredibly important outcomes it does is a refreshing change.

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