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Charleston company develops life solutions

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Suicide is the third leading cause of death for those who are ages 10-24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Members of this particular demographic also are deeply involved with their peers through social media.

The story of a young man who took his own life earlier this year is considered tragic — but it actually may lead to saving others from the same fate. At least Ricky Kirkendall hopes so.

Inspired to make a difference, the 21-year-old Charleston native and technology wiz is developing a suicide prevention app along with his partner through their company, Floco.

“Around the beginning in 2014, someone in the Marshall University community lost someone to suicide,” Kirkendall explained. “I didn’t know the young man personally, but he was about my age.

“I heard something unique in his case — that he had been posting some tweets that were indicative of his intent leading up to his last couple of days.”

Kirkendall said he became interested in that fact because he could see there was something that should have been noticed.

“Things weren’t ok,” he said. “Whether his tweets just got lost in the mix or not, I noticed that they had gone completely un-replied to. Usually someone might tweet back, but that wasn’t the case.

“Maybe if someone had noticed, things may have changed. Someone may have intervened. They were cries for help.”

 

Making a difference

 

Kirkendall went to work to find a solution.

“That bothered me,” he said. “I started thinking about how it could be detected, algorithmically.

“It sparked the idea of setting up a project that would attempt to implement an outreach and intervention on social media through monitoring.”

The name he came up for his project is CheckUp.

“I thought of a system that would notify a person if someone they were following on Twitter were showing signs — drawing attention,” Kirkendall said. “We’ve started to think about the many possibilities in that area.

“CheckUp is going to be a new service for suicide prevention on Twitter.”

The program would not require you to read through thousands of tweets, however.

“If someone you’re following is posting something we think could be a risk, we just send you an email to notify you, asking you to ‘CheckUp’ on that person,” Kirkendall explained.

Though there is still some work to be completed, a site is up now at CheckUpApp.org. Registration is open, and guests will be notified when the service is ready.

“We want to provide to anyone that wants to use it and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Kirkendall.

As technology has changed over the last half century, so must the means for providing people, especially youth, a way to seek and provide help for suicidal thoughts.

“I see CheckUp as the next incarnation of the suicide hotline,” Kirkendall said. “When that was started, I think it was meant to be a line of communication when you couldn’t talk to anyone else. Now, we have things like Twitter.

“A lot of people use Twitter as sort of a stream of consciousness. They put things out there that come to their mind, good or bad. They just put it out there for the entire world to see. And reply to if they want. It is becoming a channel.”

The program is planned to one day become available on other social media platforms.

“Twitter is a great starting point,” said Kirkendall. “Almost all data on Twitter is out there publicly. That’s why we started there. But ultimately we want it to be an organization that is working to use technology to prevent suicide on other social media.”

 

Fresh ideas

 

Kirkendall and his Floco partner Sam McLaughlin each are 21-year-old Charleston natives. Kirkendall attends Marshall University and McLaughlin attends West Virginia University. They co-founded Floco right after their 2010 graduation from George Washington High School.

Other Floco apps are in production. One of the apps/sites is a multifunctional fundraising tool — RaisinApp.com.

All the Floco-developed websites are mobile compatible.

“When the water crisis happened in the Kanawha Valley in January, Floco and another company, Syntropy, teamed up for a timely solution to a new problem,” Kirkendall said. “We developed WVFindWater.com.

“It’s a website that people could use to find out where the closest water dispensary was located, which stores had clean water, which restaurants were back open again. It is on an interactive map so people could go there and check it out.”

 

Significantly more access

 

Floco also has been active in finding solutions for the disabled.

“One of our first apps was for the American Foundation for the Blind,” Kirkendall said. “It is called AccessWorld, for use on their online magazine. We built a mobile app for that, which was completely blind accessible.”

Kirkendall explained the app is an easier way for blind people to access the AFB content, but through the app instead of a computer with the proper software on it.

“The next thing we did was AccessNote,” Kirkendall added. “Today, it is probably my favorite project that Floco has completed because I’ve been able to see the impact it has made.

“AccessNote essentially combines the technology of blind note takers, which had previously only been implemented on really specialized software, and we took the software on an iPhone app. It is fully functional with Braille, and fully compatible with regular keyboards. It enables blind note taking on an iPhone for the first time since the industry has been around.

“It was a big project. It was really great to see the benefits of it.”

The feedback for AccessNote came immediately.

“I was at a conference in San Diego with the American Foundation for the Blind and a legally blind gentleman stood up and said that he had bought AccessNote the very first day that it became available,” Kirkendall recalled. “He said ‘It has been a real life saver for me.’ It enabled him to be more competitive in the workplace and access information quicker. That was great.

“You spend all of this time building the software, so it’s very validating to hear someone say how much it means to someone like him. We talked to him afterwards and he thanked us for developing it and continuing to develop it. We’re happy to have been there for him.”