Safety in numbers

Spring 2016
Bob Filbin '05

Photo by Keri Goff

Bob Filbin ’05

While data science is an interest and a profession for Bob Filbin ’05, helping society’s most vulnerable people is a calling. So Filbin found a way to use his skills as a data scientist in a field where technology and analytics have not been widely employed: crisis counseling.

“There’s a common application of data science for marketing products,” said Filbin, “and I thought, ‘Those powerful tools that can be used to influence people — can they be used for social good?’”

Founded in 2013, Crisis Text Line (CTL) answers that question with a resounding “yes.” The 24/7 service connects people who are in psychological crisis with counselors, using texting as the medium. Filbin, who was one of its first two employees, noted that it is the first large-scale crisis texting service, exchanging more than 1 million messages a month, and more than 12 million messages since the nonprofit’s launch.

Users of the service skew young and value the emotional privacy that texting provides. “I don’t want the person on the other end to hear me crying” is what one young person told Filbin when he asked about feelings on privacy and texting. This sentiment has allowed CTL to help young people who otherwise may never have reached out for assistance, said Filbin, because anxiety prevents them from making a phone call or because they are in a public setting, such as at school, at their moment of crisis.

When people contact CTL, they are asked why they are reaching out. Answers range from “I’m having trouble with my boyfriend or girlfriend” to intense issues like “I’m feeling suicidal” or “I’m thinking of cutting myself.” The top five problems have been depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, family problems, and anxiety.

Even though its raison d’être is counseling, CTL is, at its heart, a tech and data organization. And Filbin finds ways to use the data gathered from millions of texts to change crisis counseling for the better. “We’re sitting on the largest data set on crisis and mental health,” he noted, adding that they make this data available to academic researchers (who pass a stringent privacy vetting process) to improve the crisis-counseling space as a whole.

Filbin has also been able to measure the impact of current events on groups of people. In the wake of news coverage about the Paris terrorist attack, he looked into the data, “and there was this incredible spike around Paris and related incidents — like U.S. politicians talking about Muslims. There was this fear [among Muslims], almost, about how they were going to be perceived in society.” Crisis Text Line created a chart with the data, which was picked up by CNN and other outlets. Having “that data already in place so we can look and find those types of insights is pretty powerful,” said Filbin.

But perhaps the natural science major–turned–data cruncher’s most significant moment thus far came at the end of 2014 when Filbin discovered that 3 percent of CTL texters were using 34 percent of its time. Known as “circling texters,” these people rely on a crisis service as a replacement for therapy. Over the next six months, he helped find ways to identify them and move them on to services that could more effectively help them.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that CTL “estimates the shift allowed it to help 24,000 more people in 2015,” a factor that put Filbin on the journal’s 40 Under 40 list this year.

Filbin himself called the discovery a “defining moment” in using data to “do something impactful for people in crisis.”

— Phil Gusman