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Summary:

An effort called the Durkheim Project has brought together a collection of big data companies, universities and government agencies that want to predict suicide risks among veterans by analyzing their social media posts.

A new effort called the Durkheim Project aims to predict which military veterans are at the highest risk of suicide by monitoring their posts to social media. The suicide rate among veterans has climbed to 22 per day, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, while a record 349 active-duty soldiers committed suicide in 2012.

The team behind the Durkheim Project thinks it can help curb this problem by using machine learning across a big database in order to score veterans’ suicide risk in real time. Patterns and Predictions, a New Hampshire-based company with ties to Dartmouth University, is spearheading the effort, which relies heavily on the company’s software for analyzing unstructured linguistic data. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, provided funding for the project, and Dartmouth  with big data vendors Attivio and Cloudera providing technological support.

The project has actually been around since 2011, although the first two years were spent building the platform for collecting, storing and analyzing the data (that’s where Attivio and Cloudera came in) and training the predictive models based on suicide data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Patterns and Predictions claims it and its co-researchers from Dartmouth and the Department of Veterans Affairs were able to accurately assess suicide risk 65 percent of the time using these models.

In theory, accuracy should improve as the team collects more data — especially social data — from veterans who sign up to be part of the project. Facebook is on board as a partner, and the project also monitors activity on Twitter and Google+.

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There is, however, one big caveat to the project: At this point, it’s only a study, which means researchers are not authorized to act, even if they see someone increasingly at risk of committing suicide. Once there’s an accurate enough understanding of the real factors contributing to suicide risk, it appears the goal is ultimately to provide doctors a dashboard through which they can monitor their patients’ statuses in near real time.

The Durkheim Project is one of a host of efforts right now trying to take advantage of new data sources, better technologies and advances in predictive analytics in order to effect positive change. We’ve covered a handful already, including ongoing efforts by organizations like the SumAll Foundation and DataKind to help non-profit agencies get a better handle on their data, and a Google-spearheaded fight against human trafficking. Researchers are especially keen on social media data, using it to study everything from the spread of disease to bullying.

I only hope that all this effort isn’t wasted on prediction without ever looking into underlying causes. The issue of veteran suicide, in particular, reminds me of Quid founder Sean Gourley’s talk at Structure: Data about data science versus data intelligence, with the former being about prediction and the latter being about solving problems. Whether it’s suicide, gun violence or Gourley’s work to predict attacks during wars, being able to predict events is great and necessary, but it ends up just being a perpetual Band-Aid solution if we never actually study the deeper, dirtier data that might help us figure out why people do things and attack issues at that level.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Rob Hainer.

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  1. Jorge Luis Oyola Tuesday, July 9, 2013

    Dear Derrick Harris

    Do you know why this is happening? because when we try to re-enter the work force we are discriminated. I can save your life if you had a shot gun womb to your chest and yet I can’t even be a CNA, LPN or an EMT with out spending money that I don’t have to get certified.

    Go to my web page I have been out of work for 14 months What am I supposed to do? I have great skill sets yet I get no job opportunities. I am about to go homeless with a 7 year old daughter with no support system in place in the next 20 days. Can you help me?

    I have provided you with a link to my website because I need help http://oyolagroup.com/donations.html

    We ask for help and all we get is empty promises its a feeling that really hurts a person and takes a toll.

    I hope I did not offend you or your readers but after 14 months I am about to live on the street with a 7 year old daughter and what am I supposed to do? stay quiet and humble, strike back at society and start taking/stealing or go to the wilderness and drench my hands in my own blood.

    So I ask you again what am I supposed to do?

    Jorge Luis Oyola
    785.320.3655

    1. Stuff You Should Know Jorge Luis Oyola Tuesday, July 9, 2013

      I’m sorry that you have to deal with this, this country and how it treats veterans is disgusting. You give everything you have to defend it and they cant even give you a job when your over qualified for it.

      1. I need help a small donation of a few dollars can hopefully keep me off the street.

        It helps because its a combined effort so even a small donation of 10 dollars can go to pay the apartment rent, electrical bills and need food.

        Or perhaps a lead to a job.

        I am running out of options.

        Thank You and God Bless You and Your Family

        1. Stuff You Should Know Jorge Luis Oyola Tuesday, July 9, 2013

          What area are you in? I can contact my colleagues to help find work

          1. I live in Manhattan Kansas. I have done the VA, Work Force, Man Power, Home Depot, Walmart things already and so far Nada…

            I am very optimistic because I have great skill sets but after 14 months of no job or income it does take a toll on everyone.

            I appreciate it and hopefully with networking my situation I can get out of this mess.

            1. Stuff You Should Know Jorge Luis Oyola Tuesday, July 9, 2013

              I’m well networked in the Washington DC area, do you have a resume I can forward around ? if so please send it to husseinyussuf@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to help.

    2. I’d like to offer you some humble advice. I saw a number of typos in your comments here. Fair or not, people judge us on our writing skills, so I advise you to read more and work on your spelling. In the meantime, you need a job so find someone to proofread your resume, cover letters, emails to potential employers, etc. If you don’t have anyone, please feel free to email me and I will more than glad to help you: andrew.riegle at yahoo dot com

      1. those dreaded “D’s”….I agree my typo’s and grammar structure needs work at times.

      2. and I thank you very much for reminding me of that.

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