Could the solution for dealing with Chicago’s gang violence lie at the intersection of social media and data science? That is at the heart of what Dr. Desmond Patton and his team at the Columbia School of Social Work are hoping to discover with SAFE Lab.

A research initiative at Columbia, SAFE Lab brings together social workers and data scientists to pose the question: can social media help prevent gang violence? They take a holistic approach that combines in-person interviews with data research in order to identify and ultimately predict potential hot spots, allowing the team to work with community leaders to intervene before gang situations escalate. Social workers meet with at-risk youth to better understand gang culture and its influence on young people of color, while data scientists review social media posts using algorithms and natural language processing to interpret the messages being communicated.

What initially sparked our interest in Dr. Patton and his work is that he has described the research as taking a “human-centered” or anthropological approach to understanding gang violence, rather than the more impersonal data-centered tactics typically used for researching marginalized communities.  His goal is to look at potential victims or perpetrators as humans experiencing trauma or pain rather than simplistically reducing them to stereotypes.

Social media is a powerful tool, serving a dual purpose in the SAFE Lab enterprise—it is both the place where youth express their feelings of vulnerability and grief, and simultaneously also the home of ‘cyber-banging’ where gang members issue direct threats, taunts, and disrespect to rivals. This 360˚ view of a young person’s grief, anger, retaliation, and openness demonstrates the complexity of their feelings and establishes that gang-involved youth are motivated by more than violence.

It’s this complexity that necessitates the human/social side of the methodology. Taking a hands-on, human-centered approach to low-income youth of color helps provide transparency and context for what is seen online. Dr. Patton explains that frank and open interaction with gang-involved youth “unpacks the black boxes we get in traditional research or from typical big data approaches.”

Dr. Patton has recently written about graphic depictions of violence on Facebook Live and other social media platforms, asking readers to consider the consequences of these widely-available tools while asking questions about the ethical and moral responsibilities of site creators and administrators. While this real-time violence has led to some calls for censorship, the SAFE Lab team instead sees another opportunity to bring together young people, community leaders, and researchers to understand responsible site use.  Rather than “policing” social media, Dr. Patton suggests that the sites facilitate open discussion about preventing cycles of violence.

Some might question how well social work and computational science can work together, but Dr. Patton assures us that “It’s a lot of fun!” Each team is learning the others’ language—social workers are applying analytical methods and data scientists are thinking more contextually about what they do—while they unite with the shared goal of using tools to do good and impact social problems. The alignment provides for plenty of productive conversations around the conditions and factors that lead to violence, and how to work with the community to help individuals.

When asked about the future of social work and the unique challenges and opportunities technology presents (and will no doubt continue to present), Dr. Patton is optimistic. “The biggest challenge for researchers and analysts will be to keep up with new platforms” and the inevitable changes to the ways that young people of color communicate on social media. However, “if we stay connected to the people, they will lead us the right way,” he says.

The research being done at SAFE Lab is reframing gang violence, helping researchers understand gang culture and better contextualize violent incidents. Ultimately Dr. Patton and his team would like to see any organization or individual that works with young adults help provide them with a support system. This includes building relationships with physicians (trauma, ER, GP), religious organizations, schools, and educators who can offer the care and tools to encourage young people to effectively deal with their emotions before a situation escalates to the point of violence.