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Grad student's research helps save lives through social media

two men sitting at a table working on a computer
December 02, 2014

Jordan Bates, doctoral student in applied mathematics and research associate at the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University, was part of the winning team at September’s Hacks 4 Humanity event, co-hosted by ASU's Project Humanities and EqualityTV.

Bates’ team created software that mines Twitter feeds for keywords that suggest suicidal thoughts. They then used machine learning and natural language processing techniques to train bots that would filter the potential tweets down to a manageable number of messages that could then be assessed by humans.

Humans will assess if the tweet should be acted upon and, if so, they will have a series of interventions available to make connections to the individual, start conversations or share valuable information about services that could support them. The team called the project Ark Humanity.

“In the beginning, I was looking around to find something similar,” Bates says. He modeled Ark Humanity after FoodBorne Chicago, a health department system already in place in that uses social media to identify and respond to foodborne illness complaints.

Bates also cited a 2013 journal article from researchers at Brigham Young University that showed a correlation between suicide-related tweeters and national data of actual suicide rates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neal A. Lester, director of ASU’s Project Humanities, co-facilitated the Hacks 4 Humanity event that brought the Ark Humanity team together.

The "Hackathon" was part of the Project Humanities “Humanity 101” movement, an ongoing effort to promote and sustain dialogue, public programming and understanding about the best that is humanity via seven principles: integrity, respect, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, kindness and self-reflection.

“It really was an opportunity for community building,” Lester said. He noted the event hosted 200 participants, half of which were volunteers. Several Hackathon teams will continue to develop and pursue their projects, Lester says.

The Ark Humanity team presented their project again at an October Humanity 101 film screening of "The Bridge," a documentary about suicide at the golden gate bridge.

“It was very well received and people saw a need for it,” said Lester.

Ark Humanity also entered this year’s Changemaker Innovation Challenge and the College of Public Programs Innovation Challenge, a question posed for undergraduate and graduate ASU students to make a difference in local and global communities.

The Ark Humanity team will run a pilot and evaluation before partnering with a larger mental health organization to launch at scale.

“The next step is just to get a working prototype the volunteers can work with,” Bates says.

The Center for Policy Informatics is a research unit in the School of Public Affairs, part of the College of Public Programs.