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A lifeline online

Microsoft and CUBC team up to tackle youth suicides caused by cyberbullying

There is no slow suicide when it comes to cyberbullying. The time it takes to go from an online bullying incident to a young person taking their own life is often shockingly quick. For social workers faced with the task of sifting through gigantic volumes of cyberchatter to look for tell-tale indicators of suicidal tendencies, every day is a race against time.

A pilot scheme now being offered by Microsoft, however, is giving charities and social workers in Hong Kong the chance to regroup and re-engage. For Wong Sau-wa, chief executive of the Church of United Brethren in Christ’s (CUBC) social service division, the initiative comes not a moment too soon.

Cyberbullying in Hong Kong is on the rise – the rate of incidents is up by 10 per cent this year, according to Wong – and deaths are becoming more frequent. Spotting those “hidden youths” who are being persecuted, and reaching out to them before they take drastic action, requires a complete rethink in how charities engage with young people and social media.

Traditionally, NGOs such as CUBC would hunt for tinderbox teen cases manually by patrolling internet discussion forums and social media sites. But the charity’s ageing and outdated stock of PCs and lean operating budgets make the job rather arduous. With the growing volume of online activity, it is also relatively hit-and-miss in terms of coverage.

Microsoft’s latest NGO initiative not only uses advanced social-listening technology that accurately and methodically targets and assesses potentially suicidal teens. It also provides an enterprise-level solution for following up cases in a highly efficient manner.

Microsoft has long been a supporter of charities and education. It offers steep discounts on its products to schools and charities, and this month it announced a new phase in its global US$500 million Partners in Learning (PiL) programme, which will provide 800,000 Hong Kong schoolchildren and teachers with cloud-based Office apps for free. Even outside PiL, last year it gave over HK$12 million of software to Hong Kong charities through its TechDonation Programme.

But as its pilot initiative with CUBC shows, Microsoft’s social work goes much deeper than freebies and discounts. Alan Chan, national technology officer at Microsoft Hong Kong, says he now spends around 50 per cent of his time working with NGOs developing new pilot schemes, such as the CUBC social-listening project, and creating various solutions packages. Microsoft’s free cloud-based volunteer management system, for example, is now widely used across the city.

This year, the company’s annual NGO Day campaign, now in its tenth year, was specifically targeted at tackling the issues of an increasingly online social world and to brainstorm better solutions for NGOs.

“Social networking is changing the way NGOs need to connect to and serve their youth clients,” Chan says. “Nowadays, 70 per cent of social workers use social media to engage with youths – more than 50 per cent of them have multiple user accounts with which to reach out – but how do they most effectively locate and engage those people in need in the cyberworld?”

The CUBC pilot is built around Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 software and a versatile app called SharePoint. Using SharePoint’s advanced and configurable social-listening algorithms, CUBC can quickly track activity in cyberspace and gauge sentiment of an online community down to an individual user level. Online users calculated to be at risk are automatically flagged for follow-up.

Under existing systems, a flagged user would be contacted by a social worker for follow-up. The pilot scheme, meanwhile, brings the power of the cloud and social networking to case-handling. “When we launch a case, we can easily hold a case conference, where we can bring in teachers, psychologists or other experts,” Wong says. “We can record the conversations and other data, so this is a very good platform to help us engage other professionals.”

The whole platform has a very familiar Facebook-style interface, with “likes”, comments, sharing and other social media features. “Most of the time when you need to share knowledge, it’s residing in people’s minds,” Chan says. “[With the platform], you don’t have any central repository of knowledge, as no one would be able to use that. Instead it’s more like Facebook, with people asking questions and exchanging data. It’s a very effective way of sharing information.”

A further advantage of the enterprise-level system is security, where sensitive documents pertaining to a case are securely held within the cloud system and don’t need to be e-mailed around unruly e-mail groups.

The pilot is progressing well, with Microsoft and CUBC hoping to see full deployment across all 40 social workers at CUBC within several months. For Chan, it’s further proof of the cloud concept in social work. “NGOs were quite typical of other businesses in some ways [regarding the cloud],” Chan says. “Two, three years ago, they were afraid of the cloud. Now they understand more about the benefits.”

For CUBC’s Wong, it simply marks a new era in reaching out to children and helping prevent tragedies in the sometimes dangerous new online territories in which they play.