England may have lost, but it will have come home for those in abusive relationships. What can tech do about it? | News

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The Innovation and Technology Network


England may have lost, but it will have come home for those in abusive relationships. What can tech do about it?

By Dr Gaby Wolferink, Lead Consultant on Partnerships and Collaborations, DTL Creative

England lost the Euro 2020 final to Italy. Even though I’m Dutch, and of course a bit sour about ‘my team’ exiting so quickly, I truly wanted the team to do well. Not as much for the country as for the individuals that make up the team.

This team is something else, and regardless of what one makes of the behaviour of a part of the spectators (I won’t call them fans) and the media, I personally think it’s 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 would like to remain anonymous, football and the emotions and habits that are associated with it (and accepted as such) cannot be done away with as ‘just a game’; it becomes a sometimes life-threatening ordeal of survival. If Sunday’s scenes in London are anything to go by, for too many people, like the 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 tech 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’s 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, that weren’t designed to help abusers assert control over their victims. 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, and, as we’ve just seen in the previous section, that’s not an easy feat – even the things that we thought we’d designed ‘for good’, in this case keeping family safe, can also be used for the exact opposite.

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 malicious intent to be invited in.

As I say all the time, ‘there are ars*h*les everywhere’. One way or another they will find ways to harm people, even by using tools and tech that were supposed to be helping people; however, we have to keep trying, not just by 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 properties they manage, have the opportunity and, dare I say, responsibility, to play a part in trying to make things better. I’m 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?

  • Overall awareness and appointing dedicated 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 visiting 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 efficiently, using technology probably already available in your organisation!


  • 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’re looking at to close the website in a single click, then opening an often-used random page, such as Google’s frontpage.

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.

  • 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

  • Ensure you have an excellent data culture to start with

Before I go on to explain what can be done 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’s not just something ‘added onto your job that you wish someone else would do’; it’s 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 data too. To provide great services and providing opportunities to help tenants in danger, it is pertinent that data is correct.

  • Put in place the right security measures in your systems

Whether it’s 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’re speaking to.

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

As shown in section 5 of the SaveLives.org Safe at Home Report, 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 repairs requests being mostly made out of hours. Having reporting in place that can identify these potential cases is key in spotting signs of domestic violence and saving lives.

Of course, these aren’t the only signs, and there might be hidden messages and hints in phone calls or emails sent by victims (or even perpetrators) 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 below are by no means exhaustive and just some of the things you could/should do and consider. We’d 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.

Further useful resources: