Viraj Puri, a 13-year-old in Great Falls, Va., watched his older brother undergo torment from schoolyard bullies. Now he’s fighting back against that scourge—not with his fists, but by leveraging social media and data analysis to identify hotspots of bullying behavior.
Puri is developer-in-chief of Bullyvention, a website (www. bullyvention.com) that features a “heat map” of bullying across the United States. The site also includes resources to help prevent bullying, such as links to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and other organizations. His efforts have earned praise from politicians—including Rep. Mike Honda of California, founder of the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus—and garnered support from high-powered data scientists.
The heat map—still in the early stages and not yet particularly accurate—uses analysis of selected Twitter messages to generate a real-time display of bullying behavior. Puri plans to make the map accurate “down to the local neighborhood” by incorporating a larger sampling of tweets, plus data from Facebook and other social media sites. “Version 2.0,” he says, will likely roll out later in 2014.
Puri also aims to bring market pressure to the issue by developing a bullying index. “If you’re looking to buy a home, knowing which neighborhoods have a bullying problem could be a factor in your decision,” Puri says. “That’s going to put pressure on government and schools to get rid of bullying.”
Kalev Leetaru, Yahoo! fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, is a data scientist who consulted on the project. “Ten years ago, I would have told [Puri] that he’d need a team of 100 researchers, a massive budget, and massive computing power to be able to do anything,” Leetaru says. “Now you don’t need to be a big company or a large NGO to leverage big data.”
Using social media to map episodes of bullying raises challenging research questions. “You can’t just search comments for the word ‘bully,’ or you’ll wind up with reports about [New Jersey Governor] Chris Christie or some celebrity that the media has identified [as a bully],” Leetaru says. “What you’re after is the actual bullying behavior—and that doesn’t come with the hashtag ‘#bully.’”
Another researcher who has consulted on the Bullyvention project is Xiaojin Zhu, associate professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin. Zhu uses machine learning to scan Twitter for what he calls “bullying traces”—evidence of real-time cyber-bullying attacks (which are relatively rare), as well as boasts from perpetrators and other indicators of recent bullying activity.
Online bullying can be tricky to identify, even with sophisticated data tools. The same word can have opposite meanings. Certain terms of profanity, for instance, “can be used to bully or to bond,” Leetaru notes. “People might tweet, ‘F-you’ or ‘F-yeah.’ Context determines whether it’s positive or negative.”
Despite those challenges, supporters of Bullyvention are keen to highlight the potential benefits of the project. “If we could measure a practice like bullying down to a census tract, the way we measure age, employment, and all these things, what would that do to help change the world around us?” Leetaru says. “You can imagine this approach leading to earlier intervention.”
Leveraging technology to prevent antisocial behavior has become an international trend. In Monterrey, Mexico, where gang violence escalated earlier this decade, citizens are using social media and GPS data to help build a safer community. What started as a series of informal Twitter messages about areas of town to avoid has become an organized social media initiative. The program, led by a group called the Citizen Integration Center, allows neighbors to post incidents that they witness and to receive real-time alerts from other participants. Earlier this year, the center received a New Digital Age Grant (funded by a donation from Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google) to expand the project.
As for Puri, his biggest challenge right now involves finding time to work on the Bullyvention project while navigating middle school. His motivation remains high. This school year alone, he reports, two teens in his community have committed suicide, and both had been the victims of bullying.