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Tech for good: How AI is empowering survivors of domestic violence

By Subarna Ganguly

Last updated February 20, 2024

The fear of speaking out and asking for help is immense, and real, especially for the survivors of domestic violence, who tend to suffer mostly in silence. Many don’t realise that they are victims, not always aware or recognising the signs of domestic violence, which are not always marked by obvious physical abuse. The emotional and psychological scars of domestic violence run deep, and it’s a cross that one may bear forever—and often alone.

According to the UN, one out of four women globally, and three out of four children, have experienced domestic violence. What makes the situation more dire is that 60 percent of survivors do not seek help, and 90 percent do not go to the police.

What may be most important to amplify are the signs of domestic abuse, and the places where victims can get help. And this was the mission that spurred Rhiana Spring to found Spring ACT: a non-profit organisation that uses powerful AI and bot technology to empower, guide, and help domestic violence survivors: We caught up with Rhiana Spring, founder, and executive director of Spring ACT, to learn more about their story, mission, values, and their game-changing work.

Igniting hope: The Spring ACT story

With degrees from Harvard Law School and London School of Economics, Rhiana Spring channelled her education into a career in human rights. Her focus was initially on refugee support, and she has worked with the United Nations, the Swiss Foreign Ministry, and with different legal teams all over the world. “I started off in the courts of Argentina, then worked in Ghana, the Philippines, Senegal, and Ethiopia. And that’s where everything started,” shared Rhiana, executive director at Spring ACT, about her journey.

In 2017, while working for the United Nations in West Africa, five refugees turned up at Rhiana’s office looking for help. They had been running from pillar to post for over five years trying to get help with many pressing issues, including enrolling a child named Emmanuella into school. But no help was in sight. And after trying–to no avail–to mobilise various agencies on their behalf, Rhiana turned to her network. And that worked—in the space of a weekend, three solutions were discovered and Emmanuella was enrolled in school.

Inspired, Rhiana began developing a tool to help people in vulnerable situations find the help they require— the technology would automatically direct them to the right place. The idea was to help individuals navigate the overwhelming amount of information out there. It would also assist often understaffed and underfunded institutions with their workload, thus allowing employees to spend more quality time with people in need of support.

Then, with the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, and the corresponding drastic rise of violence against women, her priorities shifted. Together with a handful of friends, Rhiana adapted the technology to focus specifically on domestic violence. “Sophia,” the world’s first chatbot assisting survivors of domestic violence, was born in Switzerland. And in 2021—to reflect the growing vision and highlight their value-based approach—the team decided to move forward as a new organisation called Spring ACT, which stands for “Action. Compassion. Technology.”

Knowledge is power: How Chatbot Sophia is revolutionising domestic violence aid

Spring ACT’s Sophia is a chatbot that assists survivors of domestic violence 24/7 no matter where they are in the world, and in strict confidentiality. “You could be in the same room, next to the abuser, and seek help by accessing the Sophia chatbot, without their knowledge. You do not need to download an app, or register anywhere. It is completely encrypted and you leave no digital trail. The absolute anonymity and privacy that Sophia provides is its greatest strength and most unique feature,” said Rhiana.

Survivors can chat to Sophia about their abusive relationships, how to recognise the signs, what they need to know if they plan on leaving the relationship and, most importantly, where and how to find help. They can also create a digital safe where they can start gathering potential evidence of the abuse happening which could be used in custody decisions, divorce proceedings, and obtaining restraining orders with the support of the police.

“Sophia not only helps survivors understand their legal rights and find national and local support, connecting them to experts and aid organisations, but also guides them on how to gather potential evidence, for example, how to take pictures of physical abuse in the right way.”

Spring ACT has also launched district-level support in Switzerland and Peru, and is expanding across the world. The organisation is driven by a dedicated team of nine and supported by more than eighty volunteers. “We’ve had survivors contact Sophia from Mongolia to the Dominican Republic, and even from places where we don’t have volunteers, like Vietnam. At the moment, we have limited financial resources, and that’s our biggest challenge.

A vital bridge between survivors and help

In 2021, Spring ACT joined Zendesk’s Tech for Good program, receiving product and implementation support at no charge. The organisation uses Sunshine Conversations to engage with survivors.

In October 2022 Spring ACT was awarded a Tech for Good Impact Award. As one of the top four grant recipients, it received a cash injection of $US 50,000, alongside pro bono support.
“We are thrilled to receive this recognition from Zendesk. And the funding and free software will give us a new lease of life, and help us scale and make a greater impact,” said Rhiana.

The Spring ACT and Sophia Chatbot story is a shining example that Artificial Intelligence, when leveraged in the right way, can help us be more human.

Want to support SpringACT? You can donate to support their work here

Are you a domestic violence survivor? To reach Sophia, type “www.sophia.chat” into your browser or search for “Sophia Chatbot” in your messenger apps (Viber, Telegram or WhatsApp).

Join Spring ACT’s upcoming event for International Women’s Day: the Hackathon “Hacking Global Injustice: sexism.” The event is scheduled from 8 to 10 March 2024 in the heart of London, at the London School of Economics (LSE), and will bring together 50 participants to develop a viable app to tackle imposter syndrome and everyday sexism.

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