I built a chatbot to make it easier to talk about family and sexual violence. Here’s why

Hello Cass has sent over 7000 messages, and hardly a week goes by without someone getting in touch to say ‘keep going’.

There are three questions people almost always ask me when we’re talking about Hello Cass: Who built itWhat does the name ‘Cass’ mean? Is this something that happened to you?

The answers? I didNothing really. And, does it matter?

The third question isn’t always audible. Rather, it’s asked in the way they scan my face, searching for clues. Maybe there’s a tightness around my mouth, a strain to my voice, or perhaps the small lines around my eyes were etched by trauma.

In early May, I celebrated one year since launching Hello Cass, so I thought it might be time to give a slightly longer version of those answers.

Hello Cass is a chatbot I built with the help of some mates, and is an anonymous way for people across Victoria to get information on family and sexual violence. When it launched, it was the first of its kind in the world. I built it to work via SMS, because I wanted to make it as discreet and accessible as possible; to make some of the hardest questions easier to ask – to feel almost as though you’re texting a friend. Recently, spurred on by an increase in usage as we isolate in our homes, I launched a web version too, at hellocass.com.au. The data is still being analysed in a COVID-19 context, but we already know that disasters are never good news for women.

I first had the idea for Hello Cass in late 2016, when I was living and working in Berlin. Germany had left its borders open to provide safe harbour for the over one million Syrian refugees who would flee there. I wasn’t feeling particularly purposeful in my job at a big ecommerce company, so I started volunteering some evenings in an emergency accommodation centre. It was in many ways, a refugee camp in the middle of the city. A place where privacy was forsaken for shelter, residents occupied rooms with no roofs, and the profound problems of family and sexual violence within and around the accommodation centre were impossible to hide.

By early 2017, the community at the centre were not only from Syria, but had swelled to include people from across northern Africa, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cultural differences meant health and personal safety messages needed to be nuanced, but with language and literacy barriers confounding things, getting information and support quickly and discreetly into the community was incredibly challenging.

But everyone had a phone. A lifeline that tracked back to the lives they’d left behind, and a device to help navigate a new reality, a new country, and a way to access critical information – providing they knew where to look. I became obsessed with the idea of a discreet chatbot you could text with questions you didn’t know how, or have the language to ask; so I quit my job, and got to work.

After wrestling with my pretty terrible German and non-existent Arabic for a bit, I realised I was kidding myself building a chatbot in languages I didn’t speak properly. Sensibly, I decided to start in English, and moved back to Melbourne in late 2017. Coming home coincided almost exactly with #MeToo’s second movement exploding a conversation about violence against women all over the world, and for maybe the first time ever, I found myself in the right place at the right time. In 2018, I  was awarded a Myer Innovation Fellowship, which provided me with enough time and money to build the chatbot.

Now: why ‘Cass’? 

Someone once asked me if it was in reference to the story of the rape of Cassandra – an Apollonian priestess, whose wretched punishment for witholding sexual favours from a man was to never again have her words believed. That tale echoes the sentiment and fears of so many victim-survivors that they won’t be believed, or seen as reliable witnesses to their own lives, and so never recieve help. I wished I’d thought of that. Sometimes I close one eye, and imagine myself delivering that story of provenance. But it wouldn’t be true, I didn’t know that story. I was in a hurry, wanted something that sounded casual, and kind of gender neutral. I also just really liked the name ‘Cass’.

The information in Hello Cass is scaffolded like a decision tree: users respond to the bot’s prompts with simple statements or numbers to navigate their way through the content. It’s a simple solution that doesn’t use machine learning or neural networks. To use these kinds of technologies, the algorithms your product is trained on need – to use the technical term – shitloads of training data to ensure accuracy. So for something like Hello Cass, I’d need tens of thousands of transcripts of people disclosing abuse, asking for help, searching for the words to explain the unspeakable.

And that is the purpose of Hello Cass. To offer up the words so that someone who is confused, unsure, traumatised, in shock, heartbroken or numb doesn’t have to try and find them. And this is a story that I do know.

I know the feeling of desperately ordering words in your head, trying to find the confidence to thread enough of them together to explain what happened to you. I know how it feels to think your words won’t be believed. I know the feeling of trying to give someone only enough information so they have the facts but don’t feel too sad or uncomfortable. And I remember the feeling of trying to not floor yourself when you hear those words coming from your mouth.

Is this something that happened to you?

Of course it is. I’m pretty sure most people work it out for themselves, and I’m grateful when they don’t succumb to the temptation of probing for the details. Three years, all of my money, energy, and fight going towards this very difficult project that no one asked me to make – the fire in my belly to keep going had to come from somewhere.

I never wanted to make this work about myself, or be part of ‘the brand’. I want my reputation in this area to be because of something I have power over. Hello Cass is a tech product, and I’m a tech professional, with fifteen years of experience in the field to know how to pull this off. I don’t want the career I built for myself to be eclipsed by the time in my life when my power was muted through someone else’s choice to use violence.

But I know it is a far more compelling sell for a founder to have a deeply personal story to share, rather than being a well-intentioned nerd with a hypothesis. I’m also an outsider in the community and women’s sectors, sectors that have spent decades running off the fires in their bellies and the smell of an oily rag. And whilst I have had some incredible support from many individuals within the sector, I’ve also been met with some level of suspicion, or caution.

Finally, I broke a lot of hearts going down the not-for-profit route. Imagine! Imagine if I had discovered a way to monetise something that affects one in three women around the world! That is addressing an issue you’d be hard pressed to find any reasonable administration or global rule-setter to disagree isn’t a massive fucking problem! We’d all be so rich and so benevolent, it’s a dream, I’d be the darling of social entrepreneurialism, a genius!

But that would mean relying on family and sexual violence to keep happening. My business model would be predicated on the continuation of the very problem I had asserted was my mission to help resolve. I never found a way for this to sit okay with me. There are plenty of ways to make money in this world, I don’t agree that profiting from women who’ve experienced violence should be one of them.

I’m no Pollyanna, though, thinking Hello Cass will continue on just because it should. I’m still actively looking for partners to help it scale and survive, and I’ve split the IP between two companies to give it the greatest opportunity at being sustainable. The content, data, everything that isn’t the codebase, is all not-for-profit, but the technology can be licensed for other chatbots. As of a few weeks ago, all texts are now paid for via community donations – I sat on my couch and sobbed on the day this could finally happen.

Looking back over the last three years of Hello Cass, one year of it the world, there’s still so much to do – and I’m going to need help to do it. Much of startup culture continues to make me want to close my head in a door, and the steadily growing corpus of rejection letters and unanswered proposals can often make me feel the same. But in the last year, Hello Cass has sent over 7000 messages, and hardly a week goes by without someone getting in touch to say keep going. It has been lonely, gruelling work, and I’m exhausted – but I’m also proud. I wanted to make something to help people.

And I have.

Check out here: hellocass.com.au or by texting 0417 398 744.

First published in Women’s Agenda, May 2020

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