Capstone team works to restore trauma survivors' voices

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Stories are powerful.

Victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking often find their voices silenced, their ability to tell their own story taken from them.

A group of students from the iSchool have partnered with a Seattle-based non-profit in hopes that they can help survivors reclaim their voices and share their experiences.

Informatics majors John Diego, Huy Nguyen, Christy Pham and Marika Rundle have taken on the challenge for their Capstone project, which is the culmination of study at the iSchool. The team wanted to focus on providing services for a group of underrepresented people, and find a way to help them share their stories. Their research led them to API Chaya, which supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

The students had discovered, through their research and by talking with API Chaya, that survivors’ stories are often filtered through an intermediary. Because it’s such a sensitive topic, survivors often don’t want to share their stories publicly. If their experiences are shared, it’s often through a filter, such as an advocate. That maintains the survivors’ anonymity, but removes their ability to tell their story exactly how they want, in their own words.

That became the challenge for the students. Could they build a platform that would allow survivors to tell their story, using their own words and photos, but still protect their privacy and keep them safe?

“Our work is to ensure a person can move from a place of trauma to a place of healing,” said Joanne Alcantara, API Chaya’s executive director. “Part of the healing journey is being able to tell your own story.”

“For API Chaya, it’s a way for us to communicate the experiences of the folks that we’re hearing about every day. There are not a lot of other tools to do that with,” Alcantara said.

Stories can be a powerful healing tool for those who read them, not just those who write them.

“For survivors, there is something really touching about being able to read someone else’s experience, and relate to it,” Alcantara said.

The students call the web platform they created Bloom, to symbolize the idea of opening up and healing. The web-based platform is a simple, non-linear storytelling tool that allows survivors to add a mixture of text and photos to boxes that can be rearranged to suit the storyteller.

One of the benefits of the tool is that it’s not time-restricted. At any point, users can come back and add to or change their story. It allows them to work at their own pace, and come back over time as they are ready to share more of their story, or to tell the story of how their life is progressing. It is also a way for API Chaya to better share some of the stories it’s already gathered from survivors.

The Capstone team built the program to be simple and flexible. They wanted API Chaya to be able to manage it without having to learn a lot of technical skills. It took plenty of technical skill to create, however. The team built the program that users will see and the server to store the data. The team constantly called on their iSchool education to pull the project together.

“I’m currently taking a web development class,” Diego said while working on the project. “And everything I’ve learned in that class, I am totally applying it in this Capstone project. One day I’ll learn something … and after class I will literally do the same thing or our Capstone project.”

The biggest challenge for the students was getting the information they needed to create the platform. There were two main obstacles. First, detailed information on victims of sexual violence can be hard to find.

“The saying in the iSchool goes, we make information work. In the very beginning, when we tried to find as much information as possible about human trafficking, it was so hard. It makes sense when it comes to the nature of human trafficking; it’s not something you can easily find and collect data on,” Diego said.

The team gathered as much data as they could to help them design their platform, but they often had to rely on second-hand information provided by those who serve survivors.

The second major obstacle was confidentiality.

“The biggest challenge was user research,” said Rundle, who with Pham focused on designing the project. “We were catering to a demographic we don’t know much about.”

Because it is vital for API Chaya to keep its clients anonymous, the students weren’t able to talk to their targeted users for Bloom. Instead, the team relied heavily on API Chaya’s existing data and the expertise of the staff.

The students are done with their obligations for Capstone. Bloom is live, and a few stories are already featured. However, the students aren’t yet done with the project. They’ve continued to work on adding features to meet API Chaya’s needs. 

The students also presented a 5-minute lightning talk at a Seattle event to highlight how technology can enable abusive behavior and to showcase possible solutions to the problem. Other groups involved in law enforcement, victims’ rights and technology also presented.

“After the talk, members of the audience approached us to learn more as well as congratulate us,” Pham said. “We were really surprised by the warm response. It inspired us to keep making Bloom better.”

Alcantara said she’s appreciated how the students have kept working on the project. Even though they weren’t able to speak with their clients directly, they still found a way to be a part of the community, including joining API Chaya for their annual vigil to remember lives lost to domestic violence.

“We couldn’t be happier to work with such a great team,” said Candace Kwan, operations coordinator at API Chaya. “They spent a lot of time to understand our organization and our values.”