Hot Seat: Samaritans - 'We became a lightning rod for the data privacy lobby'

The negative feedback that the Samaritans Radar app received has prompted the charity to take it offline, as Joe Ferns, its executive director of policy, research and development, tells Susannah Birkwood

Joe Ferns of Samaritans
Joe Ferns of Samaritans

Before Samaritans launched its controversial Samaritans Radar app at the end of October, the suicide prevention charity had been developing it for almost a year. The app worked by sending users an email alert if anyone they followed tweeted something that might suggest they were feeling depressed.

The charity had consulted 500 service users and volunteers, 300 of whom filled in a survey about the app, as well as 50 young people with mental health problems, Twitter executives and Professor Jonathan Scourfield of Cardiff University.

String of complaints

So the charity was surprised when the launch was met with a string of complaints on social media and a petition, signed by more than 1,200 people, calling for Twitter to block the app. It was surprised because no real concerns had been voiced about the app during the consultation process.

"We've upset people and I'm sorry about that," Joe Ferns, executive director of policy, research and development at the charity, tells Third Sector. "The people who felt concerned had a genuinely heartfelt belief that the app was something that might harm them. At that point, what I said next didn't matter, because they were upset.

"If we thought anything like this would happen, then we wouldn't have done it. We hadn't anticipated becoming a lightning rod for the privacy lobby. We got to a point where, because of the volume of concern and the genuine distress, we decided to take the app offline so that we can have a conversation with people about what those concerns are - and a broader conversation, because there were certainly people who didn't feel able to participate in the conversations occurring on Twitter."

Data issues

Some experts believe the charity did not have sufficient familiarity with data issues and social media communities to embark on such an ambitious project. Ferns himself was not a prolific tweeter before the launch of the app.

Asked whether the app will be relaunched at some point, Ferns says he is not in a position to talk about this yet.

"For now, we need to understand more about the feedback and engage with partners both in the mental health arena and the online environment," he says.

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