Building a digital assistant to assist Childline counsellors and deliver relevant support to young people in need
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is the UK’s leading children’s charity. It has been looking out for children for more than 130 years, with the vision to stop child abuse and neglect.
The NSPCC works with tens of thousands of children every year, covering a wide range of physical and mental health issues. During the pandemic, Childline counsellors have delivered over 170,000 counselling sessions to children and young people. Mental and emotional health make up over a third of all the counselling sessions delivered.
In the past, this scale has presented a challenge in regard to ensuring that every young person gets the support they need. Through Childline, young people up to the age of 18 can access counselling sessions via web chat to get advice around issues ranging from school exams to self-harm and suicide. As these are extremely sensitive issues, conversations can’t be rushed.
With this issue in mind, we were selected by the NSPCC to deliver a digital assistant to assist Childline counsellors and keep young people on the web chat platform engaged with relevant and informative content during waiting periods.
The first task was to understand the varying levels of urgency for the different issues young people use Childline for, and tailor how the digital assistant responds. For example, a young person that needs information or quick advice doesn’t necessarily need to wait to speak to a counsellor and can be signposted to appropriate non-live support, whereas other issues carry a greater element of risk or emotional need.
We worked with Childline to understand those risks and build this into the digital assistant. Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities through Microsoft LUIS tease out keywords and sentiment, enabling the digital assistant to guide the young person to the relevant content or preparation for their chat with the counsellor.
Written content and resources provided by the NSPCC’s experts were then encoded into the EBM platform. This was followed by a round of user interviews, including visually impaired children and those with dyslexia, to test their engagement. As the messages children type aren’t always well constructed – they’re often blunt, to the point, with spelling mistakes and abbreviations – the system had to be able to interpret everything and point users in the right direction.
Finally, the build involved a considerable amount of process integration when it came to hooking the EBM platform into the NSPCC’s existing custom solutions. Thanks to EBM’s agnostic approach to integrating with other systems and infrastructures, we were able to integrate the digital assistant into the charity’s processes. They can now see these digital conversations alongside live chats, delivering a streamlined approach to counselling and child support.
The nature of the platform also means that NSPCC staff are able to own and manage the digital assistant themselves. They can analyse the conversation logs, change responses when needed and add new content without any technical expertise – empowering the team to quickly make updates that enhance the level of support delivered to young people.
With the digital assistant in place, the NSPCC has found that young people are more prepared for conversations with human counsellors. They are able to ask questions and formulate their thoughts as they wait, resulting in them being more relaxed and prepared by the time they get through to a counsellor. When a counsellor does become available, the young person can choose to stay with the digital assistant or move to the counsellor chat.
Counsellors can also view the transcript of the conversation with the digital assistant, which supports the conversation by providing useful insight into the issues a young person may be struggling with and helping them deliver more effective advice.
In addition, the digital assistant has strengthened existing risk management by categorising risk and enabling the Childline service to appropriately manage this.
“The digital assistant has significantly enhanced the way in which we are able to support young people in need. The technology makes it easier to get them the right support at the right time based on their specific situation, as well as enabling us to help more children with the same internal resources. It provides vital assistance to our counsellors, helping them do their jobs more effectively and assist as many young people as possible.”
Childline Director | NSPCC