Sometimes you just have to marvel at the way things come together. Take the case of the National Veterans Foundation’s partnering with Zenti, Inc. and Dr. Joe Franklin. Three separate entities embarked on an exciting project to identify veterans at risk of suicide through public social media content. You know the statistics…from 22-25 veteran suicides a day, we’re now at 20. Early detection and intervention are still the most successful means of suicide prevention, but identifying the symptoms and providing timely outreach remain an ongoing challenge. We’re working together on a tool to identify and intervene well before a vet makes that last phone call to a friend, family member or a crisis hotline.
Time to meet the players: Steve Cracknell and Kieran Prior are, respectively, the CEO and CSO of Zenti, Inc., a software development company. Cracknell, whose career started out in marketing and advertising, emigrated from South Africa to England in 2001. Having also studied Finance at business school, he wanted a change and he found a position with a large financial company where he cut his teeth in financial technology software. He started out in Strategies, working with, as he tells it, “All PhD’s in math and science and me, Steve the Marketing Dude.”
While initially he felt out of place, he soon found his niche helping a department that was struggling to get workers to adopt the new and improved version of their internal proprietary software. “It wasn’t going well – no one wanted to use the new tool the company had spent millions of dollars developing and somehow I got the job of finding out why.” Steve went to the users and asked them about the software, listened to their complaints, and asked what they’d like to see. Then he took that information back to the IT developers. Simple. “I don’t answer the HOW it should be done. I answer the WHAT do you want…to get the result.” It’s a method that’s served him well.
Prior grew up outside Manchester, England, the son of a butcher. At eighteen months old, when he still couldn’t walk, he was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. His parents re-designed their home to accommodate their son’s disability. It wasn’t until Kieran was ten or eleven that they recognized his extraordinary intelligence. By fifteen, Kieran realized that in order for him to live independently, he’d need a career that would allow him to afford full-time care. He chose finance and trading because it was based on mental capabilities, not physical, and because it could be lucrative. On his graduation from Manchester University, he applied to only one place, the firm he considered to be the top. He was the first disabled person interviewed for a trading role and basically every partner in the firm interviewed him. He got the job.
And that’s where he met Steve Cracknell. They collaborated on a product and became fast friends, then later went into business together. That was ten years ago. Steve says, “All the stuff we’ve built started with just an idea. Anything’s possible if you put your mind to it.” They’ve developed software to process language statistically as data, and applied it to detecting people on social media at risk for suicide. Because it’s statistical, processing it is faster. After processing, the data is scored. When applied in the context of processing and understanding human intent and emotion, this methodology proved to be incredibly effective. In this application, “the people most likely to hurt themselves have the largest score. Efficient use of time,” Cracknell says. And that efficiency is what will let us reach out to those vets sooner.
Dr. Joe Franklin is the director of the technology and psychopathology lab (TAP lab) at Florida State University. The TAP lab’s mission is “to ignite large-scale reductions in mental illness by harmonizing advances in technology with advances in psychology.” No stranger to veterans’ issues, Franklin was the co-investigator for the Military Suicide Research Consortium Grant from the US Department of Defense in 2015 – 2016. In 2016, he was named a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science. Joe’s work has been supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, among others. We’re delighted that Dr. Franklin joined our Advisory Board this year.
Zenti and Dr. Franklin worked together to create statistical classifiers based on keywords and phrases in public social media content that could indicate suicidal ideation. The unique software allows a subject matter expert to easily create and train their own classifier to identify content of interest.
The National Veterans Foundation was a natural partner for Zenti. Our Lifeline for Vets staff continues to help train the software to look for those language signals. Even during the “training” process we’ve found and been able to reach out to individual vets on social media who are struggling with VA benefits, PTSD symptoms, depression and other adjustment issues. We will be concentrating on broad proactive outreach to make them aware that our Lifeline for Vets is here to provide vet-to-vet readjustment services, and that they can call and get assistance with any issues they may be having.