The New York City Department of Veterans' Services and College of Staten Island Win CUNY-IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge

DVS mentored CSI team award-winning artificial intelligence algorithm to help identify veterans at risk of suicide

NEW YORK – The New York City Department of Veterans' Services (DVS) Associate Director of Partnerships Jason Loughran, a Navy veteran, mentored a group of four students at the College of Staten Island (CSI) whose suicide prevention algorithm won first prize in the CUNY-IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge. The winners from CSI faced tough competition: the CSI-DVS team beat out 25 other teams with over 200 students participating from 19 out of the City of New York (CUNY)'s 25 campuses.

The award-winning algorithm powers a prototype app called Guardian, a cloud-based artificial intelligence-driven mental health assistant. The algorithm was created by four college students from the College of Staten Island – Anthony Astarita, Egor Semeniak, Mark Vitebsky, and Vincent Vitiello – over the course of a semester under the volunteer mentorship of DVS's Jason Loughran.

How it works

Guardian leverages Watson Tone Analyzer to evaluate social media posts for language showing increased risk of suicide, such as depression, to better detect when someone is at risk for suicidal behavior. When Guardian determines a veteran has reached a level of risk where he or she may hurt themselves, Guardian notifies a designated family member or friend by text or email requesting that person to reach out to that at-risk veteran.

In the notification process, Guardian provides an evidence-supported tool called "The Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale" (C-SSRS) – also known as the Columbia Protocol -- a series of simple questions that anyone can use anywhere in the world to prevent suicide. In addition to the questions, Guardian also provides additional mental health resources like Objective Zero or for more severe situations, the VA's Suicide Prevention Hotline number.

About the CUNY-IBM Watson Challenge

The CUNY-IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge is a semester-long experience designed to improve the academic achievement and social engagement of the City University's diverse student population through project-based learning focused on using applied IBM Watson AI technologies to solve social problems. The Social Impact Challenge prepares students for careers in the 21st Century economy. The CUNY-IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge (previously called CUNY-IBM Watson Case Competition) is a collaboration between Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, IBM Corporate Citizenship, the City University of New York and the New York City Government.

"Harnessing student ingenuity and applying it to real-world challenges that government agencies like the NYC Department of Veterans' Services face shows just how powerful partnerships across sectors can be," said Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson. "I applaud the four talented students who won this prestigious award for their dedication, creativity, and motivation to tackle one of the toughest challenges this country faces – suicide among the veteran population – and I commend Associate Director Jason Loughran for volunteering his time and wisdom to guide our next generation of problem-solvers."

NYC Department of Veterans' Services Commissioner Loree Sutton, MD, Brigadier General (ret.) said, "DVS is extremely proud of Jason Loughran's volunteer mentorship with the talented and enterprising team of students at the College of Staten Island. Jason exemplifies how so many veterans continue to serve beyond their days in uniform – both as a public servant for the City of New York, and as a volunteer to college students working on the frontiers of leveraging technology for social change. We are truly privileged to have someone of Jason's talent, commitment, and dedication on Team DVS."

"We're proud to see these students creatively and passionately use IBM technologies to help solve society's most pressing issues, especially when it comes to supporting our veteran's population," Pamela Haas, Manager, IBM Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) said. "Real change takes ingenuity, broad support and trusted partnerships across public and private sectors which is why we have teamed up with the City of New York (CUNY)'s 25 campuses in this competition to explore the art of the possible."

"Bringing together creative and innovative CUNY students, access to today's technology – IBM Watson AI and Cloud Services and the challenge of reducing the risk of veterans committing suicide and you have the winning project in this year's CUNY IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge. Students had the opportunity to work with dedicated city employees, like DVS's Jason Loughran who served as the team's mentor, and exposure to IBM volunteers who served as mentors, reviewers and trainers conducting skills workshops preparing today's CUNY students to play an active role in addressing pressing social issues and contributing to the vibrancy of New York's economy", says Stan Altman, Baruch Professor and Organizer of the CUNY IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge.

The College of Staten Island President William J. Fritz said, "The CSI-DVS team's first place honors at the IBM Watson Social Impact Challenge exemplifies not only the exceptional education that the College of Staten Island provides its students, but the College's determined and award-winning support of the veterans community. It's extremely inspirational that four of our students used their talents to create Guardian with the hope of supporting, and potentially saving the lives of veterans who are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life."

"Guardian's goal is to save veterans' lives and every life is worth the effort," said College of Staten Island award-winning student Mark Vitebsky. "If one day we learn that Guardian had prevented just one veteran from taking their own life, that would mean the world to us."

College of Staten Island award-winning student Anthony Astarita said, "We have a lot of veterans fighting a hidden mental war and a lot of organizations trying to help them. The real problem is connecting veterans to the right resources. Who needs help? Who is out there trying to help them? Guardian connects them together."

"After learning about the extremely high suicide rates in the veterans' community, our team began looking into solutions that are currently available on the market," said College of Staten Island award-winning student Egor Semeniak. "To our surprise, there were a lot of resources available for the people who are identified as being at risk, but the information was really scarce for those who are unaware of their potential risk.  After working closely with the Department of Veteran Services, we formulated our idea and began integrating cutting edge technology with several existing programs. Our goal is to efficiently identify individuals at risk and take appropriate actions in order to assist them in their battle within."

"This program is a great example of a modern problem solved by a modern technological solution," said College of Staten Island award-winning student Vincent Vitiello.

Volunteer mentor and DVS Associate Director for Partnerships Jason Loughran said, "This technology gives new meaning to what we know as 'the buddy system.' Guardian will be able to equip everyone with the tools to help friends and family members who served their country get through hard times."
"This agency is dedicated to finding new ways of bringing individuals and institutions together to tackle our City's most vexing challenges," said Associate Commissioner for Public-Private Partnerships Cassandra Alvarez. "Our collaboration with CUNY and IBM Watson is a perfect example of public and private sector partners working together to ensure New York City is a place where veterans and their families can live healthy and purposeful lives. We owe it to those who have given us so much."

In case of immediate crisis

If you're a veteran or know a veteran in need, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Military Crisis Line, text-messaging service, and online chat provide free VA support for all service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all veterans, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.

About the City University of New York (CUNY)

The City University of New York (CUNY) is the nation's leading urban public university. Founded in 1847, CUNY counts 13 Nobel Prize and 24 MacArthur ("Genius") grant winners among its alumni. CUNY students, alumni and faculty have garnered scores of other prestigious honors over the years in recognition of historic contributions to the advancement of the sciences, business, the arts and myriad other fields. The University comprises 25 institutions: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, CUNY Graduate Center, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, CUNY School of Law, CUNY School of Professional Studies and CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The University serves more than 275,000 degree-seeking students. CUNY offers online baccalaureate and master's degrees through the School of Professional Studies.

About the New York City Department of Veterans' Services

The New York City's Department of Veterans' Services (DVS) strives to improve the lives of all veterans and their families, regardless of discharge status. DVS operates as a centralized hub able to put veterans at the center of all our efforts, coordinating services with a range of agencies at the City, state, and federal level, as well as through public-private partnerships. Our mission is straightforward: to foster purpose-driven lives for NYC service members, veterans, and their families through effective connections with the NYC community; targeted advocacy at the local, state, and national level; compassionate service, ensuring we make it easier to access services and benefits they've earned. We believe veterans are civic assets whose strength and demonstrated commitment to public service help NYC thrive.

For more information on the New York City Department of Veterans' Services, please visit our website at, visit us at 1 Centre Street, Suite 2208, New York, NY, call 212-416-5250, or follow us on social media @nycveterans.