Suspending Samaritans Radar: inadequate mitigation of risks from suspension

The Samaritans have now suspended their Samaritans Radar app. They’re right to suspend it, but have done so in a way that risks adding to the harm done by the app.[1] The Samaritans have – quite rightly – emphasised the value of Twitter as a support mechanism; they have also claimed that Samaritans Radar can contribute significantly to this. With this in mind, I’d have expected them to be careful not to do harm when suspending the app. Sadly, I don’t see evidence off this: there hasn’t been adequate notification of users, and I don’t see adequate support systems in place.

So far as I can tell, people who signed up to use the app haven’t been told that it’s no longer working.[2] Some may notice the Twitter discussion of this, but many won’t. While I think the app was a bad idea overall there were, as quantumplations notes, some positive ways in which it could be used: for example, it might be used by someone “who knows they follow people on twitter who might have mental health issues, wants to keep an eye on those people, and [is] able to provide meaningful support to them.”[3] Such users may be relying on the app to keep an eye on people, and therefore not checking Twitter feeds manually; this could lead to them missing worrying tweets.[4]

If someone clicks on an alert that was sent prior to the app’s suspension, they are just taken to this page. This means that, while a user will have been told that there was a worrying tweet from someone they follow, they won’t be able to know who the tweet was from or what it said. This could be rather distressing. Given data protection concerns this is probably now unavoidable[5], but Samaritans should have provided better support to people in this situation.

Unfortunately, the first thing someone clicking on a Samaritans Radar alert will see is a fairly generic statement which seems to be aimed at media covering the suspension; if they scroll down the page (which many may not do) the next thing they will see is a link to a survey. Finally, at the bottom of the page, they will see contact details for the Samaritans. This isn’t a good response to what may be a very worrying situation for a user of the app – instead, the Samaritans should have put up a statement tailored to people in this situation, along with putting details of available support up-front. There should also be details of support for users outside the UK.

A final thing to note is that suspending the app at around 6pm on a Friday means that sources of support people would typically rely on may be unavailable or harder to access and that – if users of the app are worried about some of those they follow – there’s more chance people may be offline over the weekend. Not only have Samaritans suspended the app in a rather messy way, the timing of doing so may make the situation worse.

I’ve argued that the Samaritans did not adequately mitigate the risk of harm from Samaritans Radar. The same applies to their suspension of the app. Even if they only made the final decision to suspend the app at 5:45pm on Friday, they must have been aware that this was a possibility for some time – so should have prepared better measures to reduce the risk of harm to users of the app and to other people affected by its suspension.

Update 9/11/14: quantumplations is looking at some problems with the survey the Samaritans released to coincide with Samaritans Radar’s suspension. More effective engagement following the suspension might also have helped to mitigate current or future harms related to the app.

[1] They should have acted sooner – or, better, developed the app in such a way as to avoid these problems – and should have posted a more meaningful apology. There are also questions about what the Samaritans are doing with the data collected. I’ll pass over these issues for now, though.

[2] I can’t be sure that some users haven’t received notification of the suspension. I can’t find anyone who has, though – so, clearly, if there was a notification system in place it’s not working well.

[3] To be clear, I’d only view this type of monitoring as appropriate where all parties are happy for this to take place.

[4] There are concerns about false negatives produced while the app was running. However, a suspended app will produce no true positives at all.

[5] It could have been avoided had things been thought through better pre-launch, but none of us have a time machine…

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