How can technology help #ukhousing fight domestic abuse?

Even though England lost, it will have come home for too many people suffering from domestic abuse – what can tech do about it?

England lost last night’s Euro 2020 final to Italy. Even though I’m Dutch and of course a bit sour about ‘my team’ exiting stage left that quickly, I truly wanted the team to do well. Not as much for the country as for the individuals that make up the team, and for those who suffer from domestic abuse.

This team is something else, and regardless of what one makes of the behaviour of a part of the spectators (won’t call them fans) and the media, I personally think it is brilliant to see these young lads stand up (and kneel) for what they believe in; a fairer world where nobody is left behind regardless of the colour of their skin, place of birth, who they love and how they know themselves.

In this light, I also want them to do well because, as is being highlighted more and more over the last few years, there is a very significant relationship between England’s national football team losing and an increase in alcohol-related male-to-female domestic abuse.

As you can read in this brave and sad blog written by a member of staff at a housing provider who for very obvious reasons wants to remain anonymous, football and the emotions and habits that are associated with it (and accepted as such) cannot just be done away with as ‘just a game’; it becomes a sometimes life threatening ordeal of survival. If yesterday’s scenes in London are anything to go by, last night, for too many people like this anonymous author, the only thing that came home was violence and abuse.

Technology isn’t always the saviour

Doing a quick search on ‘technology and domestic abuse’ to see what kind of technology is out there to help victims and survivors of domestic abuse isn’t the great and inspirational read that you may think it is. Indeed, while having access to online sources to search and ask for help, if anything, a lot of these communication technologies that have made their way into our daily habits and lives, such as phones, tablets, laptops and PCs are also the most-used ways to monitor, stalk and harass victims.

Being reachable every time of day already has its downsides, but for those in abusive relationships, a potential constant stream of messages, calls and ‘checking in’ is just the tip of the iceberg. In many abusive relationships, there is no hiding, no locking devices, no passwords, nothing that can keep the abuser from gaining access to what you might be telling your friends and family.

It’s also not just the inherently bad things. Where my partner and I use an app called ‘Life360’ to see whether someone’s on their way home and whether we can start the cooking and the like (and to curb my own anxiety of something happening during the motorcycle commute), others use apps like this to keep track of their victim’s every movement, and refusing or switching it off isn’t an option either, as that will only lead to more (severe) forms of abuse. And let’s not think about hidden ‘nanny cams’ in combination with Wi-Fi…!

Tech for Good: is it possible?

At DTL one of our core mottos is to use Tech for Good. As we have just seen in the previous section, that’s not an easy feat, even the things that we thought we’d design ‘for good’. The government’s encouragement then to ‘design technology products in a way that minimises the opportunities for abuse may help address this issue’ isn’t as straightforward as they make it out to be.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and keep thinking about how we could use technology in ways that make it at least VERY difficult for malice intent to be invited in. As I say all the time, ‘there’s *rseh*l*s everywhere’. One way or another they will find ways to harm people even using tools and tech that were supposed to be helping people, but we have to keep trying, not just by then trying something completely new, but if tech suppliers and designers can acknowledge that their products might be used in ways they didn’t intend, and actively look out for them so they can work their best to close those doors and iteratively learn and improve, we might help at least some people.

Housing providers, domestic abuse and technology

Housing providers, who are tasked with doing the best they can to provide safe and warm homes for the people who live in the homes they manage, have the opportunity and, dare I say, responsibility, to play a part in trying to make things better. I am not alone in this conviction.  

Alison Inman’s CIH Presidential Make a Stand campaign, working with Women’s Aid and Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) recognised this better than anything else, and has urged housing providers of any size and sort to sign up to their pledge to do their utmost to own that responsibility.

Signing up to the pledge and getting DAHA Accreditation would mean committing to implementing practices and procedures, both in relation to their outward going services and, for example, the way tenancies are set up (legally), but also internally in honing their own housing management systems’ and data capabilities, to prevent, to spot (early) signs of domestic abuse, to seek professional support with how to approach these suspicions in the best and safest possible ways, and how to be part of the solution.

Outward services: what you can do?

1. Appoint (a) dedicated member(s) of staff trained to

  • continuously scrutinise and advise on internal domestic abuse procedures and policies.
  • to function as a first point of contact for ALL staff for advice.
  • to ensure ALL members of staff are aware of the procedures and policies, not just staff who go out and meet tenants.
  • ensure staff going out to tenants, have access to and understanding of devices they use and how they can enable them to report and input domestic abuse-related information on the go. We might often think that this means ‘neighbourhood officers’, but actually, it’s repairs and maintenance staff that actually enter peoples’ homes most often. There are specific training opportunities for repairs and maintenance staff to spot the signs and report to the right person within the organisation as efficiently using technology probably already available in your organisation!

2. Quick Escape/Exit Buttons

Websites that contain information on domestic violence or sexual abuse (should) have a ‘quick exit’ button on every (sub)page that allows people who are afraid their abuser or anyone else might walk into the room and see what they are looking into to close the website in a single click, then opening an often-used random page, such as Google’s front page. The most important thing for me here is to have this button ‘floating’, so people can scroll without losing sight of the button, and perhaps even scroll using the arrows on the keyboard and hover with the mouse over the button to increase reaction time.

3. Shielded Websites

Where Quick Escape buttons mainly help with the initial hiding of activity, they do not automatically erase your browser history and other data. The ‘Shielded Website’ initiative by Women’s Refuge New Zealand is a tool that allows people to search for and ask for help online without fear of it showing up in their browser’s history. It is, as they say, a simple icon which can sit on any website and “launch a powerful resource to help end domestic violence”.

Internal Technical Opportunities

1. Ensure you have an excellent Data Culture to start with

Before I go on to tell what you can do with the data you store in your systems to spot signs of and prevent domestic violence from happening, the most important thing is that everyone understands their responsibility towards data. Data isn’t just an administrative pain; It is the bread and butter of any role. It already was before we switched to computers, because data aren’t ‘digital’ per se. The ledgers and tenancy agreements stored in roller archives are and contain data too. In order to provide great services and providing opportunities to help tenants in danger, it is pertinent that data is correct.

2. Put in place the right security measures in your systems to detect and prevent domestic abuse

Whether it is a customer service operative on the phone for a repair, a neighbourhood officer having a chat about ASB or a rent collection officer asking about arrears, ensure that they have clear security protocols in place in the system, asking the right questions to confirm the identity of the person they are speaking to.

3. Spend time with data scientists and analysts to build tailored reports and alerts that can help you spot (potential) signs of domestic abuse early

Section 5 of the SaveLives.org ‘Safe at Home Report’ shows that regular repairs requests for interior doors, holes in walls, as well as break-ins for exterior doors can be a sign of domestic violence, as well as out of hours repairs. Having reporting in place that can identify these potential cases is key in spotting signs of domestic violence and saving lives. Of course, these are not the only signs. There might be hidden messages and hints in phone calls or emails that clever AI tools and machine learning can help you pick up on; the way we speak and write about things can reveal a lot about our situations, if only we learn how to listen.

The examples above are by no means exhaustive and just some of the things you could/should do and consider. We would LOVE to hear from you if you have any other great best practice procedures and tools that can help others to do what they can to spot and offer relief and support for people living with Domestic Violence as early as possible, whether they have to do with technology or not. We have to keep making a stand, day in day out, not just call attention to it when there’s a big football tournament on.