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Youthline taps AI to support young Kiwis

Youthline taps AI to support young Kiwis

Launches digital assistant Sam, which can respond to frequently asked questions around self-esteem, depression and bullying

Sam will not replace the critical human interaction, but rather help people connect to the information they are seeking, and to a person, as wanted, more efficiently

Shae Ronald, Youthline

Youthline is celebrating the convergence of Youth Week and Tech Week 2019 with the launch of their digital assistant, Sam.

In 2018, with the support of the Vodafone Foundation and tech partners JRNY, Youthline began working on a technologically innovative way to respond to more young people in need.

Fresh from the Facebook Global Safety and Wellbeing Summit in New York, Youthline CEO Shae Ronald says, “the need to test new ways of interacting with young people and providing good information is so important, especially when you’re dealing with the volume of contacts we receive at Youthline.”

Youthline was inundated by contacts when they first began providing counselling by text message, one of the first Helplines in the world to do so.

“Suicide prevention and the role of technology was a key theme at the Summit,” says Ronald. “I was proud to be able to represent New Zealand and share the role we are playing at the intersection of technology and support.”

Equipped with decades of data about the top issues young people contact the organisation about, Youthline set about to build a digital assistant to help them respond to the enormous number of incoming contacts they receive each year.

“This will not replace the critical human interaction at the heart of what we do, but rather help people connect to the information they are seeking, and to a person, as wanted, more efficiently,” says Ronald.

“Sam has been designed to support young people to navigate Youthline services and programmes, and to meet young people where they are at and encourage them to seek further support if they need it.”

Sam can currently respond to approximately 200 frequently asked questions related to topics like stress, confidence, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, relationships, bullying, youth leadership, volunteering and counselling. These topics were workshopped with several groups of young people, and their language and feedback has been directly incorporated throughout the development process.

The digital assistant uses conversational artificial intelligence and natural language processing, including sentiment analysis, to recognise questions and learn from interactions over time.

Sam will live within Facebook’s Messenger platform, and on the Youthline website, as a starting point.

Mia Garlick, Facebook’s director of policy for Australia and New Zealand, says Messenger chatbots are a simple but effective tool for support services like Youthline to provide scaled, instant access to their programmes in the spaces that young people use most.

“We’re seeing an increased use of direct messaging apps like Messenger, and we commend Youthline for adopting this trend to provide discreet support to young people and instantly equip them with important tools and information when they need it most,” says Garlick.

The project was a natural fit for the Vodafone Foundation Innovation Fund which was set up to support innovative work that aims to create better outcomes for our most excluded and disadvantaged youth.

New Zealand has the worst youth suicide rate in the developed world.

Lani Evans
Lani Evans

“We see a lot of potential in this project, and it’s alignment with our overall strategy as a Foundation. We’re excited to see how it develops and the contribution it makes to a healthier ecosystem for our young people,” says Lani Evans, head of the Vodafone Foundation.

Mental health is a particular passion of JRNY, says the tech company's CEO and co-founder Michael Lovegrove.

"It's no secret that young New Zealanders struggle with their mental health, and we need to do something about it. As a company with powerful AI technology, it's our duty to use it for the greater good and help young New Zealanders to get the help they need."

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