Life-Saving Data: After School Interview with Crisis Text Line Chief Data Scientist Bob Filbin

“This data is allowing for much smarter care and interventions to support people in crisis.” — Bob Filbin, Crisis Text Line Chief Data Scientist

Data can enhance our understanding of the world. The more data we can collect and properly analyze, the better equipped we are to understand and address what’s happening around us.

When it comes to people dealing with difficult or crisis situations, new ways of using technology to collect and analyze data is helping to spot previously unnoticed warning signs, positively impact mental health, and ultimately, save lives.

After School Communications Manager Michael Luchies recently spoke with Crisis Text Line Chief Data Scientist Bob Filbin about the role data collection and analysis plays in his organization’s efforts to help people in crisis. Filbin, an original member of Crisis Text Line, joined the organization in February of 2013, before their formal launch later that year. Filbin had previously worked for social change organization when it was under the leadership of Nancy Lublin, who now is the CEO of Crisis Text Line. Filbin specializes in using data to drive behavioral change and was named to Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 40 Under 40 who are making their mark in the nonprofit world for his efforts with Crisis Text Line.

“Crisis Text Line is the first national service for people in crisis via text,” explained Filbin. Asked about their target market and who they provide services to, Filbin stated that although their primary target market is young people, they help multiple demographics. “We initially launched just focused on young people. We still primarily serve people under the age of 25 (75%), but we have 25% (of texters) over that age. We help a wide range of people and cover a wide range of crisis.” The service provides a toll-free text line (741–741) that allows anyone with access to a cell phone to text in for help. In addition to providing this standalone number for people in crisis to reach out to their trained Crisis Counselors, they also partner directly with social networks to give those platforms an easy way to refer users to available help.

After School became one of the first social networks to partner with Crisis Text Line, nearly a year ago, in order to offer help to the teens using the social network. After School built natural language technology that detects warning signs that a teen may be facing a difficult situation, and then offers those teens an opportunity to chat with a Crisis Counselor anonymously via text. Thousands of teens have used this feature to connect with Crisis Counselors, and according to information provided by Crisis Text Line to After School, several lives have been saved.

This partnership has enabled Crisis Text Line and After School to gain a greater understanding of the problems faced by today’s teens. Each conversation is categorized by the main issue the texter is dealing with. The information has been used by the team at After School to provide additional support, features, and resources for teens based on what they are struggling with the most. The top ten issues teens using After School are struggling with was recently covered in a Huffington Post article by technology expert and ConnectSafely Founder Larry Magid.

Before a single text was received by Crisis Text Line, they were already planning how to use the information they would receive to make a greater impact on those who needed their help and beyond. “The organization is really built from the ground up around data,” says Filbin, which became an instant asset and allowed them to concentrate their energy on analyzing the data. The data collected and analyzed by Crisis Text Line is used in two primary ways according to Filbin:

  • Internally: Crisis Text Line can learn how to best assist incoming texters from the information they collect, what words are the most and least effective during conversations, and even who to help first. By analyzing the words used in the first message or messages from incoming texters, Crisis Text Line has a firm understanding of which messages are the most severe, which allows their counselors to address them first.
  • Externally:

According to Filbin, use of the data is first and foremost for the benefit of the people Crisis Text Line is serving. He explained that his organization puts its “focus on fighting for the user, and that includes security, privacy, and making sure the data you’re producing is bringing value back to the user.”

Anonymity plays a role in both Crisis Text Line and After School. According to Filbin, there are two types of anonymity — informational and emotional, the latter serves as a focal point when working with users in crisis. “They don’t feel comfortable talking to someone they know because they want to talk to a “stranger”…it feels like a safety net.” That safety net is allowing millions to share what is going on in their lives and get immediate assistance in handling the toughest situations they’re facing.

To learn more about Crisis Text Line, visit If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, please text 741–741 to chat with a trained Crisis Counselor.