The Human Side of Technology
Georgia Tech researchers and students collaborate with Athens-based Project Safe to expand the organization's domestic violence text line.
January 17, 2018
Project Safe's Family Protection Center located in Athens
Project Safe, located in Athens, Georgia, started as an informal network of safe homes in the 1970s when volunteers opened their homes to victims of domestic violence. The non-profit became incorporated in 1991 and now works to end domestic violence through supportive services like long-term housing and support groups, prevention and education, and systems change advocacy. They also offer crisis intervention – an emergency shelter, financial assistance, a hotline, and more recently a text line for teens and young adults.
Project Safe launched the Breaking Silence dating violence text line in 2012. That year, a report named Georgia the number one state in the country for teen dating violence.
“As we were processing this information, we also had to face the fact that we weren’t really working with teens,” said Joan Prittie, executive director of Project Safe. “Here we are in Athens with the University of Georgia, other universities, and several high schools. Apart from going in and doing a few presentations here and there, we weren’t hearing from teens and young adults.”
The text line, according to Prittie, is a way to assist teens through a familiar mode of communication. Trained text line interns are “near peers” – local college students studying subjects like criminal justice and social work. “It’s like talking to a really smart older brother or sister,” said Mary Haddon, Project Safe youth educator & advocate.
When Breaking Silence began, a group of interns had one smartphone, which they handed off to each other between shifts. “That worked for a while,” explained Prittie. “We were just starting out and kind of feeling our way.”
Connecting with Georgia Tech
As the program expanded it became difficult for interns to keep up with the surge of texts coming in, especially after staff members promoted the text line during school presentations. They also discovered an uneven distribution of texts. Some interns would be bombarded, while others wouldn’t receive any messages. That’s when Project Safe board member Margaret Wagner Dahl had an idea.
“I said to Joan, I think we should talk to Georgia Tech through the Institute for People and Technology. That’s an appropriate place to try and sort this out,” she said. Wagner Dahl, who is also Georgia Tech’s associate vice president of Health IT, connected Project Safe with Jeremy Johnson, a senior research scientist with IPaT and the Interactive Media Technology Center (IMTC).
In 2015, Johnson and a team of Georgia Tech undergraduate and graduate students began developing a web-based interface that addresses several concerns. Instead of sharing one phone, the software allows interns to receive texts on multiple, individual phones. Incoming messages are distributed in a round robin fashion, solving the problem of uneven distribution.
“I think we fail to appreciate just how useful text messaging alone can be in addressing the need for certain applications,” said Johnson. “People often think they need a flashy, cross-platform application. You can accomplish a lot for certain types of applications just using a purely text-based interface.”
Text line managers can also review transcripts of conversations, which helps with supervision and training. “The cool thing about the technology is if an intern has a text and they’re not sure how to respond, we can go in and look at the whole conversation from our phones and help them,” said Adrienne Shook, Project Safe text line manager.
Left to right: Joan Prittie, Mary Haddon, and Adrienne Shook of Project Safe
Since Project Safe started using the new system in August 2016, the text line has steadily grown from about 30 clients a month to around 50. Staff members are promoting Breaking Silence statewide, and can now receive text messages from across Georgia. Prittie predicts, “Over time, this is going to become more likely the way that hotline type services are offered in our movement.”
She hopes to continue collaborating with Georgia Tech and says the partnership has not only been beneficial for Project Safe, but also for the Georgia Tech students who worked on the project.
“I think it was very interesting [for students] to see how their skills could help solve human problems and make life safer and better for people through the use of technology.”
Johnson, who is the father of two young daughters, agrees. He volunteered some of his time in order to complete the project. “It’s a wonderful cause. What Project Safe is doing is tremendous and impacts the lives of so many young people who are having moments of crisis. I just really believed in their mission and what they’re trying to accomplish.”
February is teen dating violence awareness month. To learn more about Project Safe’s programs and services, visit their website.