Children are among the most vulnerable members of our society, too often bearing the brunt of poverty, abuse and social disruption. Out of necessity, hundreds of child helplines are on the front lines as dedicated responders to support children in crisis. Operating in most parts of the world, these helplines are effectively 911 for kids, providing emergency response services for children facing difficult situations. While child helplines typically receive more than 30 million calls annually, many of those helplines are struggling with outdated technology and outmoded channels of communication.

In late 2018, Tech Matters began working with Child Helpline International (CHI), a global network of more than 160 member helplines located in nearly 140 countries. CHI and its member helplines recognized that technology could help them innovate their operations.

A central goal of our partnership with CHI is to shift the child helplines’ focus as voice-based call centers, to modern platforms that can communicate with children and youth using social media channels – enabling helplines to have text conversations with children on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, web chat, and SMS. By opening the door to the platforms where young people communicate, we expect to tap into a giant unmet need.

We’re also creating much better tools for helpline counselors, integrating technology that improves efficiencies and makes it far easier to respond to children, connecting them seamlessly with the support they need – while protecting the privacy and security of each individual child. Our overarching goal is to triple the capacity of helplines to respond to the needs of children.

We started the Aselo project by reaching out to more than 25 child helplines around the world to understand the challenges that they were facing. We discovered that every one of them had created their own technical solution for operating their helpline, even though they largely did the same thing. This research provided the critical stories about how tech could help them, which drives our design process. This process also confirmed the value of a shared platform. Based on direct input from counselors and helpline leaders, we created a technology roadmap for building a shared, open source platform that could be readily adapted to the individual needs of a specific country and culture. We’re designing the shared Aselo platform to save the helplines money, make it easier to gather data about the broader state of the world’s children, and enable helplines to respond more effectively to support children in crisis.

This work became even more urgent in light of the global pandemic, which has heightened the issues facing vulnerable children. School closures and shelter-in-place mandates have increased call volumes by 50% or more – with greater incidences of child abuse and other crisis situations. At the same time, older generation call centers, which required staff to be physically present to use the phone system in the office, have struggled to remain operational. Staff can’t easily work from home at such agencies. Some child helplines had to shut down because of lockdowns; others had to reduce their staffing and/or helpline hours due to social distancing. And, the inability of many child helplines to communicate over text channels such as SMS, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp has become a more serious problem. A child may not be in a position to make a private phone call to a helpline if they are locked down at home twenty feet from their abuser. All of this has made it even more important to expedite the deployment of this platform globally to support helplines and the children they serve.

Silicon Valley has stepped up to support this effort, aiding children and youth around the world. We received initial funding from Schmidt Futures, which allowed us to conduct our in-depth market research with helplines. Child Helpline International in partnership with Twilio.org and Facebook funded Tech Matters for the software development phase of the project.

Currently, we’re actively working with ten national helplines who are co-creating Aselo with us. They are already testing the sixth in a rapid series of new software releases. Over the rest of 2020, we’re expecting to progressively release better and more powerful versions of the software.

Before the pandemic, and even more so since the pandemic, we’ve had significant interest from child helplines and the child protection field about this project. Helplines are recognizing the value of using the same tech platform and how that can lay the groundwork for better understanding and improving our combined response to major issues facing young people, such as mental health, hunger, violence, online child sexual exploitation and abuse, and child marriage. It will also generate huge amounts of collective data from the field which can be used by machine learning (while implementing strong privacy constraints) to further improve responsiveness to the needs of children and enhance advocacy on their behalf.

This is an exciting open source project that could have additional value to nonprofit helplines addressing other societal issues – from domestic abuse to suicide prevention. We anticipate making Aselo available to child helplines in early 2021 – and we’re looking forward to working closely with the child helpline movement to meet the needs of at least 100 million children a year by 2025!

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