January 05, 2016

Bob Filbin: Counting Texts, Saving Lives

Crisis Text Line

Bob Filbin, 32
Chief Data Scientist
Crisis Text Line
New York

Bob Filbin always wanted to be a scientist. He studied marine and freshwater science in college, conducting research on the pH tolerance of snow algae with the goal of identifying better ways to detect life on other planets.

"It was really cool work," he says. "But I realized that I felt a little bit distant from making an impact on people here."

So he turned his attention to the burgeoning field of data science. Now, as chief data scientist at Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit that provides crisis counseling to people who text messages seeking help, he deploys information and analysis to help save lives.

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The organization uses data to monitor operations in real time and improve the service it provides. Case in point: A little more than a year ago, Mr. Filbin found that a small group of texters, roughly 3 percent, took up 34 percent of crisis counselors’ time. That 3 percent was using the emergency service as a substitute for therapy.

"As soon as I talked to some of the crisis counselors, they said, ‘Yes, it’s so stressful, and I don’t feel like I’m really helping those texters,’" says Mr. Filbin. "It was clear that this was an emotional issue for the counselors."

Over the next few months, Crisis Text Line came up with a way to identify the more frequent texters and encourage them to seek long-term treatment. The share of counselors’ time they took up dropped to 8 percent and the quality ratings recurring texters gave the service rose — a sign, the organization says, that they were getting the help they needed.

Crisis Text Line estimates that the shift allowed it to help 24,000 more people in 2015. Because counselors contact emergency responders to intervene in an active suicide attempt during roughly one out of every 100 conversations, Mr. Filbin says, "that translates directly into lives saved."

Since the organization was founded in 2013, more than 11 million messages have been exchanged. Early this year, the group will begin sharing the texts with researchers in an effort to find better ways to treat — or even prevent — mental-health crises. The group will follow strict protocols developed by a committee of top thinkers in ethics, law, security, and privacy.

So far, more than 30 research teams have said they want access to the information. The set of data is unique, says Mr. Filbin.

"This is people in their greatest moment of crisis," he says. "Most of the other data on mental health and crisis is survey data, which is collected after the fact. It’s people remembering."

Send an email to Nicole Wallace.