Samaritans Radar and the big questions…

Regardless of what you think of the Samaritans Radar, (and as a previous post states, I’m not a fan) it’s highlighting a number of really interesting and fundamental questions around tech policy, ethics, and legal aspects of operating in an international space, aspects of data, and how people view NGOs and charities.

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts on many aspects for a very long time. But for now, I’ll just provide some short summaries about some of the issues it highlights – and expand on them as I have time.

Criticising charities/3rd sector organisations

How should individuals criticise or make constructive comment on the actions of charities or third sector organisations? For instance, I know many people who would like to publicly criticise the Samaritans current approach, who would do so if it were Government or business doing something similar, but feel that they shouldn’t say anything because of the huge good the organisation has done in other spaces.

Others I’ve spoken to automatically assume that because an organisation which aims to do good has done this, then it is stamped with some mark of authority (with presumed research or due diligence carried out), or automatically a definite good.

As we see more innovation in the third sector, and see NGOs and charities coming online, and engaging with digital and tech, there will be a large number of problems – just as there have been messes in other sectors. Mistakes may lead to a bad day at work, or someones last day at that job, but they rarely systematically affect the standing of the organisation once seen to be corrected.

How will individuals or society feel engaging with these organisations or offering even constructive criticism in other messes? How do these charities/NGOs accept, as Government has had to do with the creation of GDS, that they might not always be at the forefront of digital/social, and how do they change to fit that? How do they feel about perhaps a changed role in digital where they may not always be able to offer *the* voice of authority on specific issues, and instead understand a greater democratisation of expertise? And how does all of this happen in such a way that doesn’t discourage innovation in this sector, but doesn’t prevent questioning if well meaning actions may cause harm?

Interesting links

Because it’s possible does that mean it’s OK?

As ever with technological developments, practice runs ahead of legislation – with businesses often pushing boundaries to maximise their benefit (profit?) and to establish new norms before laws catch up. Indeed, with the Samaritans Radar, it’s true there are a number of existing ways of doing similar monitoring – for instance keeping an eye on search terms or creating your own code. Or just skim reading tweets of individuals (although that allows people the ability to delete tweets within a short period of time).

Many people know that businesses, organisations, and individuals use the Twitter API to capture tweets, and subject them to all types of analysis for a whole range of reasons – from money making to academic research and data journalism. However, a large number of people aren’t aware of this, or don’t know the extent to which this happens – raising interesting ethical questions regarding informed consent about data which may be used to identify an individual even if it isn’t ‘personal data’ by any legal definition.

Are all these ‘OK’? What is an ‘OK use’ of such data and who should be involved in helping to define what is OK and what isn’t? Should any use of data produced be considered OK from a legal perspective? And how do we ensure people are informed about these expectations?

If there is nuance to be found here, around uses, then ideas of who is to be impacted should possibly be considered.

Furthermore, charities should be aiming for a higher standard than just legality. Charitable organisations should also be able to win a moral case. People also have a degree of expectation that profit making companies may be interested in exploitation – but are less likely to expect this from a charity.

Informed consent on platforms

Can you presume that individuals consent to something automatically if they don’t know about it?

In most ethical frameworks, the answer to this would be no – but how can you ensure online that an individual has not only actually read something, but also understood it and is able to consent (for reasons of language, age etc)?

Obviously, that’s presuming that an individual can even be certain of being directly told/asked about the possible uses data they produce may be used for – which clearly isn’t the case. The Samaritans Radar shows some of the instances here – with the Radar being automatically opt in. New Twitter users won’t necessarily hear about it, twitter users outside specific circles won’t hear about it, many people from non UK countries (where the media coverage was heaviest) won’t hear about it. Is it ‘OK’ to presume these people all opt in – even if effectively they have not been given any ability to opt out.

Should it be the case that we as service users are directly informed/asked about use of data? Should we as users of the web assume that companies have the right to sell data about us in return for our using services? Are there any other models that may work?

Who owns data online/on Twitter

When you use any website there is a lot of data floating from one geographic ‘real world’ location to other real world locations. This data may be data that an individual produces (clicked on this link, visited this website, said this thing, was in this location), or the data that is provided to an individual (the downloaded website on the browser, the email alert, the picture of a map).

Similarly, when you use a service – an app, or social media site for instance – you create data and consume data. For example when you tweet, one example of data created by a user is the tweet itself – but there is also other data created, such as time of tweet, optional location, photos, and the context that comes from previous (or later) tweets, etc.  Much of this can be acquired through the Twitter API which anyone with sufficient technical knowledge can use.

Data is subject to a number of laws subject to interpretation (depending on perspective) – for instance data protection (eg. how data is stored, processed, who has access), copyright laws, data ownership, duty of care, and likely many other issues.

According to the terms and conditions of Twitter, all data including the tweets made are owned by Twitter.

EDIT 6th Nov: Thanks Graham Triggs.

Twitter Terms of Services state that:

You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

So – you as a user own the content, but grant Twitter a license. What does this mean in effect?

EDIT ends

How these laws and terms and conditions play out, what these ToS mean versus how users of those sites perceive the situation is fascinating.

What is the impact on how users may use a service if they become more aware that tweets are not considered the users data? Does this mean that what an individual says on twitter cannot be considered ‘personal data’ even if it is data that says something personal about the user?

What is the moral responsibility for a platform holder to be transparent about exactly how they consider the data being produced, and is it OK to hide this deep in terms and conditions when it is likely that people *will* produce data that can be monitored, aggregated, and used both for and against said individual.

Interesting links

How public or private are social media sites?

Paul Bernal has written a great blog post about this. But what is clear (especially looking at #SamaritansRadar) is there are no real agreements about whether tweets are fully public or not. It’s a fairly new, technologically enabled, slightly grey zone – yes tweets can be found by any individual who goes looking (either directly or using the API) – but does that mean they are *totally* public or should be treated as such? Social interaction tends to rely upon degrees of friction, and ‘online social interaction’ is subject to less friction than we are used to in the offline world. What new norms do we have to get used to and think about in an online world, how do we deal with the fact that people in different countries, of different ages etc will perceive this issue differently?

And if we do just accept that all that data is publicly available and owned by someone else, then perhaps users need to be made more aware about this (and by whom is a really interesting question, as no one has an incentive to do this). There may also be place for safer social networks to be set up – although what this may look like, I have no idea.

Online design

It’s getting ever easier to create apps and software – and this has potential for much good in the world – hopefully meaning that in the distant future we will have more diverse groups creating tools to solve their own needs.

But there are also possible negative impacts. How can we tell the difference? As designers, platform owners or as users of a service? And what do we do as a result? What are the responsibilities and culpability of each of these individuals?

There are many ‘online spaces’ which now exist, and altering the environment of these can impact many people a designer or platform owner may never thought of. When you create something, what responsibility as a designer do you have to engage a wide range of individuals and carry out significant research?


Even if research is carried out, what is a ‘sufficient’ evidence base to establish a case for and subsequently introduce a new innovation into an existing online environment? Is there a difference in the level of evidence needed for an online environment (where interactions are more social) than an offline environment? The answers are likely to vary dependent upon how significant any proposed changes are, who is likely to be impacted, how many individuals, and the possible outcomes of any alterations.

Is there a responsibility to engage with existing users of that platform to share research outputs/insights? Or a servicer user is the onus on individuals to leave if they become unhappy with changes that are made?

Whose voice is important – and how do you make sure you hear a balanced perspective?

Lets say an app creator does carry out some research – how do you ensure that you don’t get trapped in echo chambers? Digital and social media are great, but it’s very easy to get trapped in echo chambers and to forget about other possible users (as I covered here)

It’s also crucial to remember that people may not feel able to raise their voice to vocalise their opinions. For instance there are individuals who support the Samaritans Radar and individuals who really detest it who don’t feel able to vocalise their opinions on the platform.

And what qualifies as a ‘balanced’ opinion? If you are affecting a minority of individuals, does it matter if you negatively impact them? Are sheer numbers the most important issue?

Tech innovation for the sake of innovation

There is a huge tendency at present for tech solutionism – the idea that more technology or an app can solve almost any societal problem. This is problematic, as it limits the potential solutions individuals and organisations may try to find.

Maybe, with the Samaritans Radar, no-one thought ‘maybe we could have promoted advertisements in a depressed persons timeline’, or noone thought perhaps a concerted advertising campaign reminding young people to look out for each other might work – but they may have better long term impacts on solving a people problem than an app.

How do we stop ourselves and others limiting our problem solving framing around the idea of building more and more technology to deal with our existing lives?

Digital skills in charities/NGOs

If you don’t know much about digital, tech or social media it’s really easy to be wowed by agencies or individuals who come in, waving hands and saying they have the solution to all your problems. With the world becoming more digital and data heavy, as a charity or NGO you need to have staff who have skills and understand of issues relating to technology, data and digital. And many otherwise excellent individuals don’t have these skills (yet). While this is true in many organisations, within those which don’t have a strong incentive to ensure they keep skills up to date, or willingness to spend money on staff training or new hires, this may be especially true.

How do charities keep up to date with digital or social media skills? There are some great organisations and individuals working out there – but are there good ways of helping the charity sector improve on this more rapidly?

New media engagement

One of the digital skills that needs to be thought about is social media engagement and comms work.

Old comms work used to be heavily focused around press releases, lots of fanfare on radio, newspapers, TV and that was it. However, it’s no longer enough. Any communications plan needs to include considerations how to engage with people on social media sites  *especially* if your project is about social media, and especially if there is already an existing community of those you are trying to work with/for.

Ignoring people who have specific comments, who due to expectations set by the platform and other companies, now expect to be engaged with online, makes you look bad, causes significant ‘brand’ damage, and risks causing frustration to those individuals. Even worse, if it’s a group of vulnerable individuals (*cough* those with mental health issues *cough*) you risk causing significant agitation, and if you are a charity has potentially a huge impact upon your future donations. All of this the Samaritans have done in their response to the Samaritans Radar.

How organisations choose to do that is something that marketers are still trying to solve, and it’s true that many organisations haven’t caught up in this space yet. But regardless you need to feel confident engaging online and in digital spaces.

Academic involvement in projects

What is the ethical responsibility of academics being involved in public projects? I’m all for greater academic participation, building a more evidence informed world, but there needs to be some balance of the desire for impact (driven by current UK research policy?), desired peer academic scrutiny, and culpability (for any possible negative repercussions). This falls into all manner of academic involvement – not just projects like the Radar, and I imagine this is something various research/science engagement people will engage with in the medium term.

Interesting links

  • Jon Mendel has written some excellent posts here and here

Who should a charity/NGO be attempting to please?

Any charity or membership organisation has to have at least one eye on the people who are likely to give them money. They are also likely to have other people to engage with – service users, or a community. How an organisation chooses to balance these needs is challenging – and not something that we see being discussed publicly often.

International nature of the Internet

It’s easy to forget that the Internet is truly global. Data comes in from, and ends up in, different geographic locations; and it’s an issue not explored often enough even in technology policy.

Laws, social norms, ethical expectations, and language use are not standardised across that – and it’s often easy to forget that, especially if you have a specific framing and not deliberately reached out to understand other contexts.

There are not many international standards on these issues, but we’re operating on a platform that supersedes national boundaries.

With the Samaritans Radar, presuming the app is not just processing tweets from UK twitter accounts (which is likely to be the case), then the Samaritans app is using data that has originated in many geographic locations around the world. Points above around data protection and copyright in various countries are likely to be different. As are issues around research ethics, responsibility for how data and information can be utilised.

Furthermore, there are also some interesting issues around what happens if you keep getting alerts about someone in a totally different time zone that you can never help. How as an individual do you feel? How responsible are the creators of the app for making an individual feel that way?

I would be very interested to know how individuals in Africa and Latin America, where there is often an existing distrust of white, Western ‘do-gooders’, feel about an organisation in the UK processing their tweets.

Final thoughts

I really don’t want to see organisations stop innovating and thinking about new ways to solve problems. But this doesn’t stop there being a lot of interesting questions, especially related to ethics, that haven’t yet been explored let alone started to come to any form of resolution.  And the Samaritans Radar is a fascinating case study for many of these issues as it’s about such a sensitive issue (mental health) on such a well used social media platform.

I’d love to see more conversations take place beyond the very heavy focus just on privacy/data protection vs. ‘charity doing good’ than we’ve so far been seeing – and will update this post as I see some of these conversations starting to take place.

My thinking around this is very much evolving – so I can imagine I’ll be making changes/edits to this page, and doing a bunch of blogging off the side over the next week. But I see this has the potential to be the starting point of some very interesting conversations about online technology.


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