Lifeline digs deep into data

Friday, 24 September, 2021

Lifeline supports people in their toughest moments. With its crisis support line taking a call every 30 seconds, it strives to ensure that no-one faces their most difficult times alone. The organisation provides round-the-clock access to trained volunteers who listen without judgement and are committed to keeping people safe. Yet in Australia, nine people a day still die by suicide — more than double the road toll.

Constantly working to improve outcomes, Lifeline is now turning to data to develop an even deeper understanding of the issues that people in crisis are facing, and what sort of support works best for specific cohorts of people.

By providing leading mental health researchers with secure access to anonymised data about Lifeline interactions, the organisation wants to gain insights that will empower its 5000 volunteers — equipping them with the best tools to support the people they talk to face to face, on the telephone or online.

In taking a multi-pronged technology approach — using a newly developed Power App to collect anonymised data from Lifeline calls, crafting a secure cloud-based data lake to provide researchers with anonymised data sets and, in time, implementing voice to text transcription — Lifeline hopes to improve the outcomes for people who use the service in times of crisis or personal difficulty.

Working with Microsoft partner Data Addiction, Lifeline has developed a secure data platform that can act as a research hub, providing secure, controlled access to anonymised data for senior researchers at the Black Dog Institute, University of NSW and University of Canberra. By analysing data captured in this important source, mental health specialists hope to uncover insights that can then be shared with Lifeline Crisis Supporters so that they can provide the best support possible to people calling into the service.

The research hub has been designed so that researchers can use their choice of reporting and analytics tools and gain access to curated data for analysis in Azure.

That’s important said Mark West, head of Lifeline’s architecture and insights team.

“If I’m getting my house fixed, I don’t expect the plumbers to turn up then tell them which tool to use, to do what.

“So it’s really about empowering them, working in partnership with the researchers to allow them to get on and do their job, but knowing that we have anonymised the data, and we have categorised that data and selected the data and handed that into that research hub, so that it is safe and secure,” he said.

Data collection growth

West explains that as part of a broader digital transformation program, the organisation has been growing its data collection with information coming from calls, text and chat. As part of the modernisation, Lifeline has selected Azure as its data platform and is following Microsoft modern data architecture guidelines.

Working with Data Addiction it has implemented a solution that can provide anonymised data via the research hub to authorised researchers with high levels of security to ensure Lifeline client privacy is maintained.

At the same time access to the more comprehensive data collection is expected to allow Lifeline to optimise its workforce management. Data analytics, for example, could help predict when demand for Lifeline services might spike, allowing it to roster on the right number of Crisis Supporters, and ultimately meet the needs of people seeking help.

Rising demand

Dr Anna Brooks leads the Lifeline Research Foundation and explained that demand for Lifeline services has grown substantially in recent years. The 2019–2020 bushfires prompted a spike in calls, and the ongoing pandemic means that the organisation is dealing consistently with 25% greater demand than it faced just a couple of years ago.

“There’s been no more important time, I would say, for Lifeline to be making sure that we are there for people,” Brooks said.

“Being able to put in place the processes that enable us to answer calls and answer them quickly when those calls are coming in much thicker and faster has been a challenge. This is why working with organisations like Data Addiction has just been so important to us.

“We really want to make sure that we’re able to answer those calls and answer them quickly and with maximum positive impact,” she said.

Lifeline is also anticipating a long tail of demand lasting for many years as people grapple with ongoing distress, financial hardship, relationship concerns or mental health issues.

The new Power App — which Data Addiction was able to develop in six days — has been specifically designed to support Lifeline call coaching. Shift supervisors and call coaches are able to use the app to listen in and collect data that can then be used to provide advice to Lifeline Crisis Supporters about how to best support people.

In time, West expects data from the app will be integrated with Lifeline’s broader data collection and also made available to researchers.

According to Brooks: “We have gathered together some of the best minds in handling these types of data in Australia and arguably internationally, to work with us, to essentially mine the data, to see what we can learn about the types of contacts we receive, if there are patterns of people who reach out to us.

“We have some people who use the service reasonably frequently, to look at whether that sort of contact is qualitatively different from the people who use the service only as a one-off support mechanism.

“We’ll get these leading researchers to look at the data and to tell us about the patterns that are inherent across those contacts. We want, as a result of doing this project, to continue to be able to ensure that our crisis support service best meets the needs of people who are using it,” Brooks said.

She sees the data platform as the potential basis for adopting a more ‘sentinel’ approach to suicide prevention and mental health — continually monitoring overall patterns of contacts to help inform proactive rather than reactive policy and service development.

Data for impact

Providing secure access to authorised researchers has been a priority, according to Sunny Rehill, Principal at Data Addiction.

“This is the most sensitive data that you can come across, it’s more sensitive than credit card data because it’s people baring their souls.

“We’ve been able to do that by leveraging off the Azure stack, using the Windows Virtual Desktop environment to ensure that we can have a robust, secure mechanism for the researchers to be able to tap into that data. And we can rest assured, they can’t extract that data without proper checks and measures,” Rehill said.

The overarching goal, Brooks said, is to collect and analyse the data to help people.

“Lifeline’s DNA is human connection. We support people in their toughest moments through human connection.

“Whatever tools we can use … everything we do is about providing human-to-human contact and connection.”

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