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Durkheim Project leverages big data to prevent veteran suicides

Thor Olavsrud | Aug. 29, 2013
In partnership with social media networks and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, a nonprofit research project is seeking to show that predictive analytics can identify U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are suicidal and need help.

Using a control group of veterans, the researchers focused on proving that text-mining methods could provide statistically significant predictions of suicidality.

"We needed to show that we have a medically efficacious classifier," Poulin says. "We achieved 65 percent accuracy. We're convinced that's a decent signal. It's not great, but it's consistent and we're going to build on that."

"The study we've begun with our research partners will build a rich knowledge base that eventually could enable timely interventions by mental health professionals," he adds.

Attivio and Cloudera Help Unify and Store Veterans' Social Media Data
While Phase 1 was underway, Durkheim Project partners Attivio and Cloudera were building a platform to allow the Durkheim Project to collect, store and analyze massive volumes of data.

"There's plenty of opportunity to use big data to make money," says Attivio CTO Sid Probstein. "Having the opportunity to use it for something like this is just fantastic."

"Say a veteran who returns from a theater is having trouble dealing with things that happened, things they saw," he adds. "As they're in that state, we expect them to voice frustration, and to do so primarily in social media. On Twitter they might quote song lyrics or a poem. There are some common threads to this kind of expression."

"The system is not really trying to understand what the person is saying," he notes. "It really only is looking for patterns and to apply logic to that. It's not understanding that there's some negative expression. It's detecting the likelihood that negative expression is an indicator of someone that's at-risk."

The Durkheim Project has forged partnerships with social media titans like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Using a suite of applications (available through the social media networks and on iPhone and Android devices), the project is creating a voluntary, opt-in database of participants' social media and mobile phone data that the researchers hope will eventually be used to provide clinicians with real-time assessments of psychological risk factors for suicide and other destructive behaviors.

The applications automatically upload relevant content (from the online activity of veterans who have volunteered to be part of the study) into an integrated medical database. The resulting text repository will be continuously updated and analyzed by machine learning systems to enable real-time monitoring of text content and behavioral patterns statistically correlated with suicidality.

"As we build upon the promising findings of our Phase 1 investigation, the Durkheim team is pleased to have Facebook's partnership in helping us connect with the community of veterans, as Facebook's capability for outreach is unparalleled," Poulin says.

"At Facebook, we have a unique opportunity to provide the right resources to our users in distress, when and where they need them most," adds Joel Kaplan, Facebook's U.S. vice president of Public Policy and a veteran himself.


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