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How an academic specialist in human memory created a chat app that’s helping companies fight harassment and discrimination


Julia Shaw

  • Spot is a new chatbot that's designed to help victims of harassment and discrimination record and report their experiences.
  • The service uses natural language processing to understand and respond to users' answers to its questions in order to encourage them to give complete, accurate, and detailed accounts.
  • Harassment and discrimination are pervasive problems in the workplace and the vast majority of incidents go unreported.
  • Spot launched as a free service for individuals but is now available a paid service for enterprises and small businesses.

Artificial intelligence promises to reduce car accidents through autonomous driving and crime through facial recognition.

It might also help companies tackle the pervasive problems of workplace harassment and discrimination.

That's the theory of the founders of Spot, a chatbot designed to help the victims of harassment and discrimination document their experiences. Spot uses natural language processing — and AI technology — to understand users and respond with appropriate follow-up questions. The system is built around decades of research into how to best help people recall emotional events reliably and with as much detail as possible.

"We saw was this massive need for better reporting tools in the area of harassment," said Julia Shaw, a cofounder of Spot and a research associate at University College London.

Spot is a chatbot built around the cognitive interview process

Working under the auspices of All Turtles, the AI app incubator created by former Evernote CEO Phil Libin, Shaw and her cofounders launched the chatbot as a free service for individuals earlier this year. Late last month, they rolled out versions of Spot for small businesses and larger corporations that are designed to help them track and follow-up on reports of harassment and discrimination.

Read more: The founder of a beloved productivity app thinks the startup model is broken — here's how he's trying to keep the tech industry from 'making the same 10,000 mistakes over and over again'

Screenshot of Spot, a chatbot from artificial intelligence technology incubator All Turtles that's designed to help victims of harassment and discrimination record and report their experiences. As seen on November 5, 2018The chatbot is designed around the so-called cognitive interview process. That's a method of questioning people that's been shown to reliably encourage people to accurately recall past events. It usually relies on open-ended queries and questions that try to get at what the respondents were thinking or feeling during the time of the events they're trying to remember.

Spot's questions follow a strict protocol dictated by the guidelines of the cognitive interview method. But the system relies on its natural language processing to respond specifically to the answers users give.

At the end of the process, users have a document that they can edit and then save or submit to their employer or human resources department.

Creating Spot was a "magical" moment for Shaw

Shaw and her cofounders came up with the idea for Spot in July last year. After Libin met Shaw at a conference in London, he invited her to come out and see what his team was doing at All Turtles and talk with them about her research into how people form memories.

Initially, Shaw thought they might work on an application that could assist people to better remember general events. But their conversations were taking place as accounts of sexual harassment in the tech industry and elsewhere were starting to gain major attention. Susan Fowler had already set off a chain reaction at Uber with her account of the harassment she said she experienced there, and others in the industry were coming forward to give their accounts.

So, as she and her eventual cofounders talked through her research and the potential app, they narrowed its focus to helping people remember and record harassment or discrimination. Within four days, they'd figured out a basic plan for the chatbot.

"I arrived as an academic and left as a cofounder of a company," Shaw said. "It was magical."

Harassment and discrimination are big workplace problems

There was and is good reason to think that a tool such as Spot is needed.

As the #MeToo movement and a growing body of research have highlighted, harassment and discrimination are widespread in the business world. Depending on how the questions are asked, some 25% to 85% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, a 2016 study from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported. Some 13% of men have been sexually harassed at work, according to a study earlier this year by the group Stop Street Harassment.

Meanwhile, researchers have found that anywhere from 40% of 70% people who come from racial or ethnic minority groups have experienced workplace harassment due to their race or ethnicity.

The vast majority of these incidents go unreported. Three out of four victims of harassment of any kind never tell a supervisor, manager, or union representative about it, the EEOC found. Among victims of sexual harassment in particular, only one in 10 women and just one in 20 men file a formal complaint or reported their experience to an authority figure, according to the Stop Street Harassment study found.

While harassment and discrimination obviously harm those who experience it, it can hurt the companies where the incidents take place too. Such incidents can damage employee morale, reduce productivity, increase employee turnover, tarnish corporate reputations, and lead to costly legal actions.

Spot is designed to make it easier for victims to report their experiences

Victims don't report their experiences for a variety of reasons, experts say. Many worry that they won't be believed or that their superiors or others in a company will retaliate against them. Some also worry that their human resources department is conflicted or won't do anything in response to their report.

"The fear of retribution and the lack of trust are real," said Kellie McElhaney, a professor at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, and the founding director of the school's Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership.


The fear of retribution and the lack of trust are real.


Spot's founders designed the service to make it easier for victims to report their experiences. Many people feel more comfortable talking to a chatbot rather than a live person, Shaw said. It's not as emotionally charged. Victims can document what happened deliberately and extensively without feeling like they're under some kind of time pressure.

Unlike some other tools on the market, Spot is intentionally designed to document more than just sexual harassment. People can use it to relate any kind of harassment or discrimination they've experienced at the office.

"If you build a tool ... just for sexual harassment, you can leave out people who aren't sure why they're being disadvantaged or harassed at work," Shaw said.

Victims can choose to report what happened — or not

And Spot has features that address other concerns. Those documenting their experiences don't ever have to turn those records into official reports, for example. If they want to, they can just use the service to sort out what happened to them and what they think and feel about it.

"It can be really cathartic just to have a place go and to really structure your thoughts," Shaw said.

If they do choose to submit a report, they can do so anonymously and can edit the document before submitting it to remove details that might identify them or others. What victims decide to do with their record is then entirely up to them.

"It depends on what [they] think is the most reasonable course of action," she said.

After a past incident, a UK bank decided to give Spot a go

With the new business versions of Spot, companies can roll out the service to their workforces. The corporate version offers an online dashboard that human resource departments can use to monitor and follow-up on reports that have been filed. The service will also email company representatives or send them notifications over the Slack messaging service when a report has been filed or updated.

Corporate dashboard for Spot, the chatbot from All Turtles that's designed to help victims of harassment and discrimination report their experiences.Monzo, a financial services company based in the United Kingdom that offers mobile banking, rolled out Spot to its employees as soon as the enterprise version was launched last month. The startup company is trying to differentiate itself from more traditional banks, and company leaders wanted to promote a culture that is respectful and supportive of employees, said Ellie Macdonald, who helps run the company's human resources department as its people partner.

The company had an incident in the past where it would have been helpful to have a service like Spot, she said, declining to go into detail about it.

"We thought, Hey, wouldn't it be good to have some kind of tool where people feel a little more comfortable in reporting these things?" Macdonald said.

Spot charges $2 per employee per month for the enterprise version of its service. For small businesses, it charges $1,200 a year, although it initially charged just $800.

Experts say it could be a useful tool

That tie to corporate HR departments could prove problematic, McElhaney said. If victims of harassment see the service as being too closely tied to their companies or worry about that they may be exposed if they use it, they could be reluctant to use it, she said.

What's more, victims of harassment and discrimination often require more than just someone or something to record their experiences accurately, McElhaney said. They often need access or a referral to a counselor or therapist to work through their emotions. They also often want or need access to legal advisors to discuss their legal rights.


The good news on this product is I would think it would be correlate with an increase in reporting.


And people are different. Some may prefer recounting their experiences to a trained person rather than to a computer, said Amy Leisenring, who has written and taught about gender issues as a professor of sociology at San Jose State University.

"It would depend on the person," she said.

But both said the service could prove a useful tool in the fight against harassment and discrimination. It seems well designed to help victims process and report what happened to them, Leisenring said. By allowing them to decide whether to report or not, it gives them power and some measure of control over the process, McElhaney said.

"The good news on this product is I would think it would be correlate with an increase in reporting," she said.

That's precisely what Shaw and her cofounders are hoping for.

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