Project Callisto: innovation, technology and justice

Project Callisto is a US ‘non-profit organization that develops technology to combat sexual assault and harassment.’ Its founder and CEO is Jessica Ladd. On the back of a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, she has received a wave of recent publicity, rolling across the Atlantic as far as UK Guardian newspaper – albeit once in the careers section and once paid for the Skoll Foundation. Ms Ladd not only clearly has a formidable PR team: she is an excellent communicator and her TED talk in Vancouver is worth viewing for its six minutes.

Project Callisto has a number of attributes which make it interesting in a legal tech/access to justice context. First, it illustrates how technology helps to break down the silos that can exist in the social justice world. Ms Ladd does not come from an access to justice background. She comes from the world of sexual health and Callisto was formerly known as Sexual Health Innovations. Her motivation for the extension of her interest, she says, comes from her personal experience. Second, Callisto, in identifying (largely) women in college situations as a potential group needing justice, widens the definition of access to justice beyond the traditional concerns of those who are poor. Third, Callisto is a project that is fundamentally based on new technology. Fourth, Ms Ladd has identified a very specific problem where sufferers of injustice have very specific needs which are largely unmet. Finally, Callisto is not a ‘fire and forget’ technology project: the technology is integrally linked to a service, part of which is traditionally individual.

Callisto is now seeking to expand its operation but it began with a focus on educational campuses. And, within that, a very specific focus: the reluctance of victims of sexual assault to report an attack: ‘An estimated 20% of women, 7% of men, and 24% of trans and gender nonconforming students are sexually assaulted during their college career. An estimated 90% of sexual assaults are committed by repeat perpetrators. Over 85% of college survivors know their assailant, and less than 10% report to their school or the police.’ It offers a service which increases and accelerates reporting.

This is its own description of the services offered:

STUDENT SURVIVORS ARE OFFERED THREE OPTIONS:

WRITE

Survivors can create secure, encrypted, and time-stamped records about their sexual assault. Without Callisto, student survivors who report begin the process 11 months after experiencing sexual assault. Callisto allows survivors to immediately preserve evidence on their own terms, at a time, place, and pace that is best for them. No one can see the details of a record without explicit consent of the survivor – they are encrypted in a way that not even the Callisto team can view.

MATCH

Survivors input the identity of their perpetrators under the precondition that, if a match is found, [a] coordinator will reach out to each survivor individually.

REPORT

Survivors can electronically send the record they have created directly to their institution to trigger an investigation or a consultation …

Universities that partner with Callisto receive a school-specific Callisto website (including custom content on reporting options and resources), along with training and materials to roll it out to their students. Callisto also provides aggregate data reports to inform the policies and practices of our partners.

Callisto has produced a useful impact report on its work. Up to September 2017, it has done well in financing with $2.5m from philanthropic funds and over $280,000 from earned revenue (from college partners). The focus on support for (largely but not only) women in recording their experiences as near contemporaneously as possible as a first stage to reporting seems really valuable. The proposed matching of records held in escrow (confidentially by a third party) on potential serial offenders would also  seem really valuable because only they are activated only if there are further reports involving the same person. Its cryptology had better, of course, be good.  The human form of the intervention at that point would also seem critical. The only danger of the enterprise would be if victims stood the intention on its head and used Callisto to prevaricate when they otherwise might have taken public action more quickly. That is something which objective evaluation can trace over time but, given the way that many victims come forth only once an abuser has been identified (eg with Jimmy Saville and other celebrated abusers) and they feel validated in consequence, this an exciting contribution to access to justice absolutely dependent on the innovation encouraged by new technology and coming from well outside the world of legal aid and legal services.

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