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Youthline is celebrating the convergence of Youth Week and Tech Week 2019 with the launch of their brand new Digital Assistant, Sam.

In 2018, with the support of the Vodafone Foundation and tech partners JRNY, Youthline began working on a technologically innovative way to respond to more young people in need.

Fresh from the Facebook Global Safety and Wellbeing Summit in New York, Youthline CEO Shae Ronald says, “the need to test new ways of interacting with young people and providing good information is so important, especially when you’re dealing with the volume of contacts we receive at Youthline.”

No stranger to providing support solutions in new ways, Youthline was inundated by contacts when they first began providing counselling by text message, one of the first Helplines in the world to do so.

“Suicide prevention and the role of technology was a key theme at the Summit,” says Ronald, “I was proud to be able to represent New Zealand and share the role we are playing at the intersection of technology and support.”

Equipped with decades of data about the top issues young people contact the organisation about, Youthline set about to build a Digital Assistant to help us respond to the enormous number of incoming contacts we receive each year.

This will not replace the critical human interaction at the heart of what we do, but rather help people connect to the information they are seeking, and to a person, as wanted, more efficiently. Sam has been designed to support young people to navigate Youthline services and programmes, and to meet young people where they are at and encourage them to seek further support if they need it.

Sam can currently respond to approximately 200 frequently asked questions related to topics like stress, confidence, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, relationships, bullying, youth leadership, volunteering and counselling. These topics were workshopped with several groups of young people, and their language and feedback has been directly incorporated throughout the development process.

The Digital Assistant uses conversational artificial intelligence and natural language processing, including sentiment analysis, to recognise questions and learn from interactions over time.

Sam will live within Facebook’s Messenger platform, and on the Youthline website, as a starting point.

Mia Garlick, Facebook’s Director of Policy for Australia and New Zealand said Messenger chatbots are a simple but effective tool for support services like Youthline to provide scaled, instant access to their programmes in the spaces that young people use most.

“We’re seeing an increased use of direct messaging apps like Messenger, and we commend Youthline for adopting this trend to provide discreet support to young people and instantly equip them with important tools and information when they need it most,” says Ms Garlick.

The project was a natural fit for the Vodafone Foundation Innovation Fund which was set up to support innovative work that aims to create better outcomes for our most excluded and disadvantaged youth.

New Zealand has the worst youth suicide rate in the developed world.

“We see a lot of potential in this project, and it’s alignment with our overall strategy as a Foundation. We’re excited to see how it develops and the contribution it makes to a healthier ecosystem for our young people,” says Head of the Vodafone Foundation Lani Evans.

It was an exciting fit for technology partners, JRNY, as well. Mental health is a particular passion of JRNY CEO and co-founder Michael Lovegrove. "It's no secret that young New Zealanders struggle with their mental health, and we need to do something about it. As a company with powerful AI technology, it's our duty to use it for the greater good and help young New Zealanders to get the help they need. The JRNY team is incredibly proud to have worked with Youthline on this project," says Lovegrove.

Sam, the Digital Assistant, is now live and will begin to learn from interactions with young people across New Zealand.

You can start a conversation with Sam here.

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About Youthline

Youthline was established in 1970 to provide support to young people in need and has more than 49years’ experience working with young people and their families throughout New Zealand. Initially set up as a telephone counselling helpline service, for youth and run by youth, it is today a first point of contact for young people in New Zealand to access a wide range of youth development and support services across the country.  

In the year to March 2018, Youthline worked with over 41,000 individual young people and managed over 298,730 digital connections through its hubs nationwide.

The free Helpline is staffed by volunteer counsellors who are supervised by a clinical team of Triage staff. The free Helpline services are not government funded.

About the Vodafone Foundation

The Vodafone Foundation has been giving globally since 1991 and the New Zealand Foundation is one of 27 Vodafone Foundations around the world. For over 25 years, we have used our fundraising capability and access to Vodafone networks, technology, customers and employees to connect communities with the tools they need to make a difference.

In New Zealand, we’ve been working since 2002, and focused on youth development since 2007. Over that time, we’ve invested more than $25 million in local communities, primarily through our World of Difference programmes.

We are dedicated to creating a thriving and prosperous Aotearoa New Zealand, where all young people can live lives they value. According to Treasury New Zealand, there are 210,000 children and young people who don’t have access to the resources and support they need to grow into the great adults they want to be. We want to change that.

About JRNY

JRNY is a Wellington based New Zealand company on a mission to revolutionise the customer journey with AI-powered digital assistants. They specialise in virtual insurance assistants and digital brokers but have also worked across several industries, including charitable and not for profit organisations. Their vision is to be the number one solution for companies looking to grow their business by delivering better customer experiences, more efficiently.


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