Introducing Sam, the A.I. assistant

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AI helps Youthline support more Kiwi youth

Meet Sam, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) assistant who’s helping Youthline reach more young New Zealanders than ever before. Sam uses conversational AI and natural language processing – including sentiment analysis – to provide crucial, first-contact support in ways that young people can really engage with. The Vodafone Foundation is backing Youthline and Sam all the way.

An increasing number of young Kiwis in need
Last year Youthline had over 150,000 contacts from 41,000 individuals, a number that grows every year. Without government funding, Youthline depends on volunteers to run its counselling service and, like many helplines, the organisation is struggling to keep on top of increased demand and more intense issues that young people need help with. Youthline needed a technology that could help people navigate their services more easily and get them through to the right person at the right time – fast.

A digital shift driven by youth
Briana Hill, Youthline Marketing, Information Services and Communications Manager, says young people are already comfortable using technology as a way to reach Youthline. “These days, the inbound helpline team are using text, email and web chat as well as the phone to counsel people. In fact, Youthline was inundated by contacts when we first began providing counselling by text message.” Although Youthline does not use Facebook Messenger for counselling purposes, they receive a lot of contacts through the platform and need to respond to them in a timely manner. She adds that today’s youth often turn to Google first to research their concerns, using it to normalise their experience or find out more about the intensity of what they are experiencing.

Creating Sam, Youthline’s AI assistant
Equipped with decades of data about the top issues concerning young people, along with the full support of the Vodafone Foundation and tech partners JRNY, in 2018 Youthline began working on an innovative way to respond to youth in need.

The challenge was to find a technology that would help to build relationships with young people as well as provide practical help. The solution was an artificial intelligence chatbot called Sam. “We created a gender neutral persona that was warm and friendly. It needed to be relatable, not young but not an expert, and a safe, secure and reliable way to ask for help,” says Briana.

Youthline put together a document describing how the gender neutral chatbot should talk, think and feel. It was crucial that the AI assistant was able to respond to frequently asked questions, so they supplied JRNY’s technical team with Sam’s ideal responses to over 200 frequently asked questions related to common concerns, such as stress, confidence, self-esteem, anxiety, sexuality, depression and bullying.

It took over a year to create and develop Sam who currently lives within Facebook’s Messenger platform and on the Youthline website. Sam won’t replace the critical human interaction at the heart of the Youthline service, but can direct people to useful articles to read online. “Providing quality articles gives valuable information and helps people to clarify where they are at. It may also make them feel more safe to contact us through the helpline,” says Briana.

An alignment with Vodafone Innovation Fund
The Vodafone NZ Foundation Innovation Fund supported ‘Project Sam’ as it aligned with the Foundation’s philosophy of providing creative ways to support young people. Lani Evans, Head of Sustainability and the Vodafone Foundation explains, “The Innovation Fund was established to support projects that create transformative change for young New Zealanders. It’s a place where we can explore doing things differently and take a few risks. We are particularly interested in projects that include technology components, as they are able to scale if successful. With the support and backing of Vodafone we can bring in other expertise to accelerate development and amplify the impact. Youthline is an established and well respected organisation that's always pushing boundaries and improving their practice. They do great work, but they are under resourced, so chatbots can take some of the pressure off by doing some of the initial contact work to help the organisation be more efficient.”

Sam proves to be popular
Briana says that the feedback on Sam has been really positive – both internally and externally. “People really like the tone and enjoy the novelty of it. And because it’s learning all the time, whichever way that people ask a question is triggering the right response.”

Sam is also helping Youthline to manage some of their workload by providing an immediate response to contacts through the Messenger platform. “Sam can triage the Messenger contacts, so if someone is enquiring about volunteer work, Sam will send them regional info and pass their details on to the internal team, or direct them to call us if they need to speak to someone in person,” explains Briana. “The whole experience has been fantastic,” she says, “We couldn’t have done it without the Vodafone Foundation’s help and the clever team at JRNY.”

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