Samaritans Radar, an app developed by Samaritans, was launched in late October 2014. Just five months later, the app was permanently deleted and a formal statement was made by the charity admitting that the app was “not the right online tool” to “provide our support, whether on or offline”.

Samaritans is a charity setup to allow people to talk about issues they may be facing in a safe and confidential way, any time day or night. The app, Samaritans Radar, was designed to bring the sentiment of this service online, by allowing app users (essentially Samaritan’s volunteers) to monitor the Twitter feeds of others. According to research conducted by Samaritans, some people – especially young people – use social media to express their feelings of depression or other mental health issues. Using sentiment analysis, Samaritans Radar notified app users if the people they follow expressed negative feelings by processing the phrases they use, such as “help me” and “hate myself”. Upon alert, app users were provided with guidance on what to do next.

A well-intentioned idea born out of naivety

On the face of it this app sounds like it could have a provided a positive impact in reaching and helping vulnerable Twitter users. But it failed spectacularly. Let’s explore some of the reasons why the project was shelved just months after launch:

“Creepy” monitoring

Given that a potentially vulnerable user may be monitored, and their activity reported on without their consent, immediate concerns were raised about the ethical nature of the app. Some users stated that it might actually drive people away from Twitter as they may feel uneasy with the idea of having their tweets monitored, if they learnt about the existence of the app.

The app allowed volunteer users to view flagged content which might be seen as a cry for help

What’s more, concerns were raised around the legalities of harvesting and processing information in this way, leading the ICO to conclude “that the Radar application did risk causing distress to individuals and was unlikely to be compliant with the Data Protection Act”.

A tool for trolls

Twitter is, particularly in recent years, becoming notorious for its troll population. Should an individual have wished to use Samaritans Radar with malevolent intent, it would not have been hard to do so. Assuming you’re a decent person it is hard to imagine somebody using a tool like this in order to abuse others more efficiently, but unfortunately social media abuse does happen.

Malicious usage of the app could have prevented or undone any good the app might possibly have achieved.

Muddled and irrelevant flagging

The app used sentiment analysis to essentially guess whether a person was displaying concerning signs by the words and phrases they used. But it would be particularly tricky, algorithmically speaking, to determine if they really needed help. Indeed, the acronym “FML” (fuck my life) is popular and used hyperbolically, and ironically by people online all the time. This sort of content would skew any analysis of sentiment resulting in a poor readout.

After launch, Samaritans deployed an update to the app which enabled Twitter users to “whitelist” themselves, meaning the app would not scan their tweets. But as far as knee-jerk reactions go, this is one that could tip over a table.

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Lessons learned

Samaritans stated repeatedly that the app had “been tested with several different user groups who have contributed to its creation”. But later admitted that they “must consult even more widely in the development of Samaritans Radar”. It is certainly true that when embarking on such an ambitious project, consulting and developing with your audience is key to its success, but some accused Samaritans of completely misunderstanding how people – particularly those with mental health problems – engage online.

Some users stated that it may actually drive people away from Twitter as they may feel uneasy with the idea of having their tweets monitored.

Mental health remains a difficult subject to tackle due to the huge variety of conditions and symptoms individuals exhibit, not to mention the ways in which issues are expressed. Throwing something relatively new such as social media into the mix and you would be forgiven for thinking Samaritans Radar was doomed before it began, but credit must be given to the team behind it for attempting to reach vulnerable people in this way.

Perhaps as technology, and our understanding of its social impact matures, so will our safeguards and methods for helping vulnerable people online.

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