Crowdsourcing is hardly a cutting edge concept anymore. The ability of organisations and even individuals to gain input into developing ideas has never been easier.
So why on earth did the Samaritans have to pull the Radar app, which was intended to help those suffering from mental health issues, after less than two weeks due to a public backlash?
Samaritans Radar was a Twitter app that automatically scanned the tweets of friends for specific phrases indicating people in a vulnerable state of mind (eg ‘need someone to talk to’ or ‘hate myself’), notified users and offered advice.
It was launched on 29th October. But just ten days later, Samaritans confirmed that it had suspended the app following massive criticism from people concerned about privacy and online bullying.
At face value, Samaritans Radar looked like a good idea. At its heart was the desire to support vulnerable people by enabling their friends to step in to help at a time when they may need them. But what it badly failed to do was (rather ironically) to judge the mood of the very people it was aimed it. And the mental health community came down on it like a ton of bricks.
Samaritans said in a statement on its website on 2nd November that Radar had “been in development for over a year and [had] been tested with several different user groups…[and] academic experts on suicide… In developing the app we have rigorously checked the functionality and approach taken.”
And yet, despite this, it missed three fairly significant issues that the mental health community and privacy campaigners alike were very quick to point out.
First, the app does not explicitly ask for permission to scan tweets. Second, there’s no opt-out mechanism. And third, with those two factors in mind, there’s no way of preventing stalkers or bullies from gaining easy access to personal information (albeit in the public domain) that would enable them to troll vulnerable people.
It would appear, to me at least, that the ‘user groups and academic experts’ consulted in Radar’s development didn’t have much exposure to real-world social media.
Lack of Consultation
Interestingly, I was at a PRCA event on the evolution of social media for charities on the evening of the launch, and the subject of Samaritans Radar cropped up. The Guardian journalist Hannah Fearn questioned whether the mental health community had been consulted before the app’s launch, as she’d already seen lots of negativity on Twitter.
How prophetic that was. It strikes me that the whole controversy around Radar could have been avoided had Samaritans taken a staged approach to launching the app, involving the wider community in its development and crowdsourcing opinions, rather than pushing a ‘completed’ product to them that they didn’t want in the first place.
Let’s face it, an app that attempts to assess people’s mental health and provides an opportunity to intervene in their lives was always going to be a delicate issue. I know from personal experience how sensitive those with mental health problems are and I can tell you one thing; even though I’m currently OK, the idea of my tweets being scanned for indicators of depression without my permission is horrible.
Presumably, Samaritans knows the sensitivities too. Likewise, it must know that the mental health community online is very tight-knit and very vocal. So why, oh why, did it not consult them more widely in the first place? Why did it not crowdsource the development of the app?
Samaritans’ heart is obviously in the right place, and it’s a wonderful organisation. But for me, sadly, this is a missed opportunity.
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Posted by Paul Sutton