Chilufya Adondo, a counselor at Childline Zambia, used to take notes from incoming calls on paper. The telephone counseling and guidance service takes calls from children on issues ranging from violence against children to HIV/AIDS to unintended pregnancies.
When the requests for help would pile up, so would her notes. It was not until she got a break in her day that she would log the details into the organization’s system.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Childline Zambia has seen a steep increase in calls, with more children dialing 116, the number for multiple Childline helplines in Africa. But due to lockdowns and social distancing guidelines, the NGO reduced the number of counselors onsite in its call center. That made it hard to keep track of all the phone calls that were coming in. It also led to long wait times, with some calls going unanswered.
Since February, Adondo and the other counselors have been using Aselo, a new platform that allows them to take cases not only by phone but also through text messaging and social media, including WhatsApp — platforms children often use.
Adondo says she can focus on the conversation rather than the technology in using Aselo, which tracks multiple conversations on a single screen. She can also input information in real-time, have multiple conversations at once, and prioritize more urgent cases.
“Counseling, it’s a lot of listening,” she said. “When you stop listening, you might lose track of what the client is trying to tell you.”
Worldwide, child helplines receive more than 30 million calls annually. Since the beginning of the pandemic, calls increased by as much as 50% in some places, driven in part by a rise in child abuse as schools closed and children had nowhere to escape. In most low- and middle-income countries, child helplines serve as case management lines, making referrals to child protective services.
Tech Matters, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit organization, developed Aselo in partnership with Child Helpline International, a global network with 168 members. Previously, many of these helplines paid for separate tech platforms. Since November 2019, 10 countries beta-tested the technology. Zambia and South Africa are the first child helplines to switch to the Aselo platform.
“At the end of the day, there is a human being who has to respond to that child. So you want to make the interaction and the processes much easier for that human being behind the call, so they can focus more on responding to the child.”— Dumisile Nala, national executive officer, Childline South Africa
The technology offers children more channels to reach out and enables counselors to work more effectively — and remotely, which has emerged as a critical need over the past year. It also makes it possible for helplines to gather, share, and compare anonymized data about children’s wellbeing on the national and global levels to inform policy and advocacy.
Social entrepreneur Jeroo Billimoria, who started Childline in Mumbai, India in 1996 and Child Helpline International in 2003, saw technology’s role to help each helpline work more effectively and to allow them to share data with one another. She approached Jim Fruchterman, the founder and CEO at Tech Matters, with the idea in 2018.
“I saw this gap. I knew he was a tech guru. I said, ‘I understand child protection and helplines, you understand technology, can we collaborate to bring something together?’” she said.
The idea, which she described as “a helpline in a box,” was a platform that could be customized to work not just for child helplines but for any services working in counseling and crisis response. That conversation evolved into the first partnership for Tech Matters, an organization Fruchterman started to support social sector leaders in making smarter technology investments to support their work.
Fruchterman said his work often involves “talking nonprofits out of bad tech ideas.”
For example, some child helplines that wanted to offer kids more ways to connect beyond phone calls were exploring a mobile app — an idea Fruchterman discouraged.
“They don’t have an app use case,” Fruchterman said. “No kid who has been beaten up by his mother’s boyfriend is going to go hide in his friend’s backyard, pull out a smartphone, go to the Google Play store — because it’s probably an Android phone — and download an app to say, ‘My mother’s boyfriend is beating me.’ That doesn’t happen in the real world. But if you know 116, you call it.”
After speaking with 25 national child helplines leaders, Fruchterman presented the idea for a common, browser-based solution at a Child Helpline International gathering in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2019. Fruchterman got to work raising money, developing the platform, and getting feedback from 10 child helplines that agreed to beta-test what would eventually become Aselo.
Tech Matters works with nonprofits to build open-source platforms on existing technology from commercial providers. For Child Helpline International, the team chose Twilio, a cloud communications platform. Tech Matters built features including a chatbot that can take basic information via a form before a child is connected to a person.
For tech to be trustworthy, researchers, civil society organizations, and governments need to get involved in governance, says Wafa Ben-Hassine of Omidyar Network.
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 threatened to slow down the process, as child helplines scrambled to figure out how to continue their services, it also increased the urgency for this platform to come online, said Patrick Krens, executive director at Child Helpline International.
“The pandemic has been an accelerator in many ways, not only in terms of technology and Aselo, but there was a spotlight on the added value of a child helpline in the child protection system,” he said.
In October 2020, the End Violence Fund, which is dedicated to ending online child sexual exploitation and abuse, awarded Tech Matters, Childline South Africa, and Childline Zambia $750,000, allowing them to accelerate the timeline to launch in those countries. Childline South Africa has operated on Aselo since April 1.
“At the end of the day, there is a human being who has to respond to that child,” said Dumisile Nala, national executive officer at Childline South Africa. “So you want to make the interaction and the processes much easier for that human being behind the call, so they can focus more on responding to the child.”
This coverage, presented by the Bay Area Global Health Alliance, explores the intersection between technology, innovation, and health. How are tech, innovation, and cross-sector partnerships being leveraged to accelerate equitable access to health care?