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Lifeline digs deep into data to help shine a light on the darkest moments

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.

Lifeline provides round-the-clock access to trained volunteers who will listen, who won’t judge, and who are committed to keeping people safe.

Yet in Australia nine people a day still die by suicide – more than double the road toll.

Lifeline is constantly working to improve outcomes. It’s 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 5,000 volunteers – equipping them with the best tools to support the people they talk to face to face, on the telephone, or online.

By 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.

Portrait image of Mark West
Mark West, Head of Architecture and Insights, Lifeline

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 Blackdog 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 says 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.

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.

Data analytics could help predict when demand for Lifeline services might spike, allowing it to roster the right number of Crisis Supporters (Source: Lifeline)

Rising demand

Dr Anna Brooks leads the Lifeline Research Foundation , and explains 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 per cent 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,” says Brooks. “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.

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.”

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

Ben Johnson, managing director, Data Addiction says; “We’re about using data to help make a difference. And what better example than hopefully trying to help an organisation like Lifeline achieve its goal and save people’s lives?

“Between the data that we’ve captured from the app that we’ve built, and also the data that we’ll capture from recordings in time, let’s give the smartest people in Australia access to the data that can potentially make the difference in preventing people dying by suicide. Also in the process, let’s make sure that we support the volunteers.”

Portrait image of Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson, Managing Director, Data Addiction

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.”

The overarching goal, says Brooks, 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.

Support is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at lifeline.org.au