A stay of 2 months: An experience of lifetime

Like every engineering student, when I took admission in engineering college I had high hopes and ambitions of doing something big and worthy. But the monotonous curriculum, seniority dogma, student-faculty gap never provided conducive environment for research and those high ambitions somehow faded away. Engineering seemed to be limited to only what was there in textbooks. However when I finished my summer internship this year (2017) at Precog, I suddenly experienced a revival of my engineering ambitions. People around were working and building stuffs that are being applied to solve real world problems and being one of them was like dream come true! My stay at precog was the most enriching part of my academic life.

My project supervisor, Prof Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) is the most awesome teacher I ever had. My journey with Prof. PK virtually began in fall 2016, when I took up his online course Privacy & Security in Online Social Media on NPTEL. I was looking for domains where I could apply my knowledge of computer science to solve real world problems, when I stumbled upon this course. Back then I was in 3rd year of my BTech study and was aiming for a summer internship at some premier research centers during my forthcoming summer vacation. Few weeks into the NPTEL course, I was so fascinated by the  course contents and teaching of PK, I absolutely made up my mind to do internship under him. Some time after the course had ended, I mailed PK with my SoP and CV, explaining why I wish to work at precog and how my interests and previous works align with the research domains pursued at precog. Few days later, I got a mail from him and after 3 rigorous rounds of selection process, I finally got selected for my much coveted internship.

My project at precog was on Information Overloading with Niharika Sachdeva as my mentor and guide. I primarily worked to figure out how the frequency of posting affects the engagement on posts made by police pages/handles on Facebook and twitter. Will write a separate blog on my technical work. Getting a conclusion from the large dataset was however not easy and took me weeks of failed analytics and experimenting with different statistical measures on the data. The best thing about precog is that it pushes you to your limits. I used to spend most of the time in the lab, highest being 18 hours. Lab hours never got boring, as I was always surrounded by hardworking and awesome people round the clock. People around were always ready to provide helping hand, be it professional or personal.

My most favorite thing at precog used to be WhatsUps  (regular meetups held twice a week) as it facilitated interaction with everyone, including PK, and also getting to know each other’s work. It thrilled listening to exciting work going around. Then there were detailed discussion sessions known as #DeepDive (a nightmare for me though :p) where one has to elaborately explain their work, codes, hypothesis, observations etc. I used to be highly concerned about DeepDives as I had to be prepared for most unanticipated questions and criticisms. The suggestions, criticisms and feedback however helped me a lot in refining the work done and coming up with better results. Here everyone was keen to help whenever I got stuck in something.

IIIT Delhi also had some surprises for me, that were to break my prejudices I had about educational institutions. I belong to a government engineering college; and being from a government college I am not used to niceness of professors and research scholars. I am used to professional barrier between students & teachers and undergrads & scholars. But starting from my day 1, I was extremely surprised how people were at precog. There is absolutely no professional protocol existing, like addressing research scholars as sir/madam, following a strict formal conversation style with them etc etc. These were something I was never used to, and it took me some weeks to get adjusted to. Everyone is friendly irrespective of them being PhD scholars, MTech scholars or RA’s. We cracked jokes, played games, went out for lunch. The person who made the most difference is PK himself. He is the most wonderful and friendly teacher I ever met and is completely different from conventional teachers. He invited us for dinner at his place, watched movie with us, took part in fun games; somethings hardly any professor does these days. He emphasizes on “Work hard, play harder”, thus apart from work related stuffs, he organizes fun gatherings and outings (we call it precog social). My best memory with him is this selfie. Its the first time I ever had a selfie with a professor!!

What I got from precog is experience, and as Randy Pausch aptly says

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

Being in Precog was much like being a part of a big family. It feels great being in such a group of highly talented and knowledged people working on really cool stuff that are making a difference in how online social media is used. I am super delighted to have worked with these awesome people. Can’t have a summer better than this!!!

Here’s the glimpse of precog family of which I was a part of.

 

On Precog, PK (and everything else that fits between the two entities)

So, what is Precog? A research group, a culture, a lifestyle? At the risk of sounding unbelievably corny, I’m going to go ahead with the last one. But really, it was.  

Ever since we had arrived at IIIT-Delhi almost four years ago, Precog (along with Dr. PK) had been one of the most “heard about” groups over here. Some of our batch-mates had already started working for Find-A-Way and Backpack, while most of us were still trying to work on our skill-sets to even be able to think of doing the same somewhere down the line.

Fast forward to the summers before the 4th year, I finally thought that I had the skills, and more importantly, the motivation to apply to Precog. There was no other professor or group at IIIT-Delhi working in the domain of Natural Language Processing, something I was deeply interested in exploring at the time. Hence, this seemed like a natural choice. The applications for Precog are a task by themselves, requiring a complete statement of purpose (SoP) and everything. I spent quite a bit of time writing this, polishing my resume, and finally applied. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in. So why am I writing this blog? I don’t know, you’ve been Punked.

Kidding. I spent the summers doing other things, tried to fill up some possible holes in that SoP and my resume, and re-applied for the coming semester. This time, I got the instructions for a task which was a part of the selection process, followed by the interview with PK’s senior students, and finally one with PK himself. The reason I mention these steps is that I was completely awed by them when the process was happening. The task itself gave me an idea of the kind of work I might be doing later on, which was pretty cool. The interviews were rigorous and detailed, a step one couldn’t cross purely by hand-waving. Come the semester’s first week, and I was added to the core mailing list.

Now, this addition to the mailing list, is a blessing and curse all by itself. We used to get like 5 emails a day, and this was probably an inactive day. Found it slightly annoying then, miss it quite a bit now. So, while we cribbed about these emails on a regular basis, each of us knew on the inside how cool they were. They kept us in touch with the latest items related to data science and even computer science in general, kept us updated about what other work our peers at Precog were doing, and while all this seems trivial when stated like this, it was great in that it kept the blood flowing – it kept us regularly motivated.

Other such half-blessing-half-curse traditions include(d) the weekly “What’s Up Sessions” and the “Brainstorm (BM) Sessions”. In the former, we all gathered to discuss in a little more detail what everyone was .. well, up to. Again, I found these to be great because they sort of gave us the feeling that everyone cares about every project. Ideas for all projects were discussed by everyone, all opinions were taken into consideration. When a group was writing a paper, it was presented to and reviewed by everyone. This was probably one of the practices that I think is somewhat unique to Precog. As undergrads, we did not spend all our time working in the same space as the Ph.D students and the RAs, and hence, it was these sessions that helped us build rapports with other Precog members.

The mentorship was amazing as well. I joined the text-team with Indira Sen, Kushagra Singh and Nalin Gupta, with Indira mentoring us for the most parts – and I cannot thank her enough for being so unbelievably patient and understanding with everything. Apart from this, PK was completely supportive regarding well, everything – including other commitments (uni applications, exams, health, everything), and it’s really important to mention this because those took huge time chunks in our semesters. He also conducted a couple of sessions to help us with our SoPs for applications, which was pretty cool (apart from being crazily helpful, of course). We even got lucky enough to once get to interact with Dr. Hari Sundaram, a professor at UIUC.

One of my other interests at the time apart from NLP was Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which interestingly stemmed from having taken one of PK’s courses in one of my earlier semesters. So, I along with three other batch-mates had decided to take part in a related competition. PK even guided us with that and provided us with constructive feedback for some of our work. Basically, the overall growth model was wholeheartedly supported, which was a fresh blessing.

Our presentation for the Designing Human-Centered Systems (DHCS) course project at BBI ’16

Also, great perks! Birthdays, Precog anniversaries, graduation, achievements (!), not a single occasion went by without a lot of activity on the mail threads and PK’s invites to the lab with sweet, sweet promises of ice-creams and cakes. Again, this probably sounds cheesy but it was these kind of activities that truly made me feel like I was a part of a family.

One such perk from Precog’s 6th birthday!

Overall, I think Precog has some great practices and systems set in place to ensure that all of us stay motivated to keep working hard, as well as have a bit of fun while we’re at it. I only have one regret – not joining early enough. So, a piece of unsolicited advice if you’re a student in your third, second or even first year – don’t hesitate in applying “early”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to publish anything in my relatively short duration here, but even then, the experience was nothing short of perfect and (needless to say) a critical part of my time at IIIT-Delhi and well, life.  

 

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Hey there.

My tryst with PreCog happened in my second semester at IIIT Delhi. I had been catching up with Megha Arora (PreCog Alum now MS CS Candidate at CMU) about what she had been up to, and I was pleasantly informed about this cool research group she works with. She also kept on going on and on and on about this professor who likes to call him PK. That same day, I went online and looked up PreCog and I was awestruck. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw PK’s CV. I had to work with the coolest professor in town. I had to work with these guys!

After gathering a decent amount of exposure in doing research with the Program Analysis Group at IIIT Delhi, I applied for a PreCog Internship in the Summer of 2016. I was exhilarated with the task given to me as part of the interview process. It was a perfect fit! I have always wanted to build systems which help others in some or the other way, and my task at hand was to build a social engagement calculator for Facebook pages (apologies for the Jargon! :P). While doing this, I learned about writing a technical report as to how the system works, the perceived shortcomings of it and some exemplary statistics of popular Facebook pages. I advanced further ahead in the process and met Prateek Dewan and Anupama Aggarwal for the technical interview round. I remember being extremely overwhelmed yet anxious when I was told that I had advanced to the final round and I have a meeting with PK. I am thankful that they found me competent enough to join the group!

I have had the tremendous honor of working on 2 projects which boast of really nice disruptive technology that can change the way people use social media. One of them is in the domain of Privacy in Social Media on Mobile Platforms whereas the other project is in the domain of social computing, data science, and HCI.

Killfie was a god-send for it allowed me to explore and finalize the subfield of Computer Science that I wanted to specialize in. It was a humbling experience to work on never-done-before things aimed at saving lives, hence the term disruptive. What seemed impossible at first took a lot of toiling, mentoring from great people, and a collective effort of the team working on the Killfie project for it to come to a realization. I am proud that I was able to contribute and solve a problem faced by the youth of the world at the moment, and thankful that I was given a chance to work on the same.

Have you ever felt a warm fuzzy feeling when you look at a group of people and just absolutely adore them? That’s what PreCog was to me from the outside. Now, take the outside perspective and amp it up by a thousand factors and you have got the state inside. We all like to hang out, discuss interesting anecdotes, take advice from each other … you get the picture. The good part for me in this scenario was that I could ping any of the pillars (the Ph.D. students in PreCog) and bricks (everyone else except the Pillars) and they would be happy to guide me on the right path, be it personal or professional life.

I have had nothing but positive takeaways from my experiences at PreCog. There have been times when I have crashed the server and yet, I was just let of with a strict warning to be extremely careful with the same. I have had sleepless weeks with just me getting 2-3 hours of sound sleep per day, showing me that I can still push my limit in working. People have properly heard me out, and given me proper constructive feedback. I have been scolded and got back on track if I was deviating. I have been pushed to experiment and let my creativity run wild as well.

We are always reminded of Randy Pausch’s famous quote in the group:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.

I can surely say that I figured out how badly I have wanted some things in my life and how can I actually achieve those things. If somebody offered me the chance to start working with PreCog at an earlier point in my life, I would definitely take it in a heartbeat.

Below is a picture of happy PreCog-ers after having had a sumptuous lunch in the month of June of 2016:

The PreCog B(r)unch

The Great Precog Expedition

It all began with searching for opportunities to work in the summer of 2016. I had heard endlessly about the work culture at IIIT Delhi, the research groups and the out of this world faculty. After researching through the site, I stumbled upon Professor PK’s profile. As I read further about him, I was awestruck and amongst the many who would want to work with PK.

My first meeting with him lasted for roughly 15 minutes but I went back home with a bag full of riveting information about what it takes to be a Precog-er. This was also the first time I got to know about Randy Pausch. At home, I watched ‘The Last Lecture’ and understood why the walls of the Precog area are adorned with his quotes.

Soon after I took part in the OSMpalooza Hackathon and witnessed firsthand how quick progress is made by students here. My team came up with whatever best solution we could think of, for the problem statements given. Sadly, my team didn’t win a position but I witnessed some amazing solutions by other teams and most importantly I saw myself serious and engrossed in a project in Social Media Analysis. This was the time I was further sure of wanting to work in Precog since majority of the work is done on analysing social media content. This incident would be incomplete without quoting the following:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.” –Randy Pausch

Very soon, I applied for the internship. After an intricate interview process, I received my offer letter. My first day at Precog was a Brainstorming session (which is another bonus point of this internship). Before the internship, how I went through research papers was basic skimming. And in the first session itself, I witnessed the dissection of a paper and not only deriving the entire methodology, but also discussing elaborate ideas about extending the current paper and implementing those as well. This is just one example of how working at Precog means legit serious work.

I was lucky to have Prateek Dewan as my mentor during the internship period. I started working closely with Prateek and soon after there were series of things I learnt that I apply till date. Before the internship the only language I worked in was Java and by the end of it, I had another language i.e. Python, to add to my skill set. Each little doubt regarding my project was cleared by him and he promptly replied to any query I had at any odd hour. I was a little apprehensive in the beginning since the progress made at Precog is super quick but I learned it all in my own time.

The most incredible characteristics of this group are the levels of sincerity and passion shared by each Precog-er when it comes to work. Apart from the respective projects carried out by each group, the regular Brainstorming sessions covered the latest research topics extensively. Several new ideas and information about the tech world were discussed in the mailing list and very soon I got the hang of it. One particular email comprised of PK discussing his latest choice of book to read, “Eat That Frog!” By Brian Tracy. Being an avid reader, I bought it the next day itself and the book has had phenomenal influences on my life. (amazing book suggestions!; another bonus of the internship). Striking a balance between working and having fun is another take away. The binding force of Precog is PK and the smart-working researchers, known as Precog-ers, make this group what it is.

Why I chose such a heavy sounding title for this post is because Precog can’t be defined by anything less. It is indeed a great expedition and I am fortunate to have experienced it.

I would like to end by quoting my favourite Randy Pausch saying that has now adorned my room’s wall as well:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” 

Below is a picture from one of the group photo sessions!(Missing in the picture: PK)

The Precog Journey

I had an inclination towards research ever since I joined IIIT-D. I admired my Seniors who got admits from the Best CS Universities of the world, which felt like the next milestone to achieve. Looking at the profiles of several of them, I realised that there was an eminent underlying force behind, that was PK! I was awestruck by the posts that PK used to do about the achievements of his students on Social Media.

I had done research in the Security domain during my first 2 years and Security in Social Media looked like a fascinating field to explore. I joined the DHCS course in the beginning of 2016, that’s when I got to interact with PK. His way of teaching is unique, and he instills an aura of enthusiasm and interest as he delivers lectures.  From him I got a new perspective to look and analyse the everyday interfaces.

I decided to apply for an Internship with Precog for the Summer of 2016. The interview was grilling and I kept my fingers crossed till the result was announced. After receiving acceptance from Precog I also received an Internship Offer from IBM Research Labs. I was faced with a dilemma, both being Great Research opportunities. I talked to PK and he offered me a part time internship with Precog.

I was excited to start working with the group. Anupama introduced me to the problem statement we were going to be working on, “Privacy Leaks through Browser Extensions”. I was thrilled to know that we were going to have a collaboration with Bimal Viswanath from Bell Labs. I had read his research papers before and was intrigued by his findings. Working with Precog feels like, you have been blessed with a network of the Top researchers across the globe with whom you can discuss, learn and work.

I moved to Bangalore to join IBM Research and worked remotely. I used to stay in office till late night reading Papers, and also Precoged during the weekends. PK used to be in constant touch as my guide and a mentor. Precog felt like a family and working on the Research Project was fun. Whenever I was stuck anywhere I was offered full support, I could message anytime and Anupama was lightning fast with her replies. I learnt the Skills of collaboration, time management and most importantly smart-working rather than hard-working.

Coming back from Bangalore I was in full swing to join the group with vigour. PK always has suggestions to improve efficiency and quality, his visions and ideas can be clearly seen imbibed in the group. Attending regular meetings, ‘whatsup’ and BM sessions, I have learned far too many things to be enumerated. Earlier I was intimidated by the rapid progress of the group, now I take pride with every new accomplishment of every member. Since every other day there is a new achievement being discussed in the group’s mailing list. Association with Precog has been a Roller-Coaster ride, where we have worked as team and partied as friends. I have been really lucky to be associated with the Coolest Research Group of IIIT-Delhi.

Below is the picture taken on Jan 4, 2016, Precog’s birthday!

Call for Service : Characterizing and Modeling Police Response to Serviceable Requests on Facebook

India is going digital in a big way; from banking to manufacturing to agriculture, each field is seeing the penetration of technology. Police organizations also have started using technology for effective policing. Most police organisations now have an official website, a Facebook page and a Twitter handle. Police not only use these new media services to showcase their organisation but also to interact with citizens very regularly. Police posts on Facebook or tweets on Twitter include a variety of topics ranging from traffic advisories, to awareness creation to bragging about their achievements. Similarly, the growing technology savvy population of India is using these mediums to share their grievances, concerns, etc. with the police. With a handful of police officers serving 1.25 billion people, it is no surprise that a lot of posts/tweets by the citizens go unnoticed by the police. Even features like tagging police commissioners and police accounts do not always yield the expected response, causing a sense of resentment. The police too find themselves helpless given the multitude of things.

With our continued interest in empowering police organizations with technology which can help them in their day-to-day activities, we have been working in the space of online social media and policing for some time now. For our research publications in this space, please visit here. For effective communication between the citizens and police, it is necessary for the police to understand the vast amount of content generated on their social media accounts. In this direction, we started thinking about how to break up the content into important versus unimportant, urgent versus non-urgent, etc. Our main aim in this research was to help police identify ‘serviceable’ content which can be served quickly and efficiently. Requests to which police should respond, evaluate or take action are considered as serviceable requests.  

We analyzed 85 official Facebook pages of police organizations in India and studied the nature of posts that citizens share on police Facebook pages. Not all posts require the same amount of attention from the police, there are some cases where immediate action needs to be taken while some can wait. Based on this analysis, we came up with six textual attributes that can identify serviceable posts; posts that need some kind of police response. We find such posts are marked by high negative emotions, more factual, and objective content such as location and time of incidences.

We identify four types of response that citizens may get on their posts:

(a) Forward: Posts which had enough information and could be forwarded to appropriate authorities for action. For instance, a resident posted, Date : 4/11/2015 (Wednesday), Time : 10:17 pm, Number : [withheld], Location : [withheld], Violations : Crossing line by way too much obstructing the vehicles which were coming from [withheld] entrance later he jumped the signal ……..

(b) Give Solution: Posts mostly included queries by residents to police that could be answered without any detail; resident asks, Admin !! Can U Explain to Me How Two Challans On Same Date Same Time in Just 5 Minutes Gap !! How Its Possible ?? Any Thing Wrong ??

(c) Acknowledge with thanks: Posts to which the police wrote “thanks for sharing the information” or “thanks for the appreciation.” For instance, resident remarks, Chennai City Traffic Police a humble salute from a fellow Chennaiite for the commendable job in such rains!!

(d) Need more details: In these resident’s posts, police inquired more details so that action could be taken, e.g., a resident asks, Cops driving wrong side [of road] near XXX hotel .. what action will be taken against them ? This post lacks information such as time and date when the incident happened.

To enhance response to serviceable posts, we propose a request – response identification framework. The approach followed in the paper is shown below:

 

Understanding Requests from Citizens:

Residents often use different language styles in posts while expressing their concerns and asking queries to police. Our approach includes following six category of features to characterize serviceable posts:Emotional Attributes,Cognitive and Interpersonal Attributes, Linguistic Attributes, Question Asking Attributes, Entity-Based Attributes, and Topical Attributes. These include the both handcrafted features and LDA / NMF based features that help automatically discover the latent dimensions and induce semantic features in our data.

Our analysis shows some intriguing results:

Serviceable requests show significantly higher value of negative emotional states i.e. “anger” (+15.38%), “disgust” (+47.8%), “fear” (+60%), and “sadness” (+10%) in comparison to non-serviceable requests. Most frequent topic is includes queries / question posed to police (Complaints represents complaints against cops in- correct decisions).

Comparing serviceable sub-types, we observe that 93.10% posts in Thanks sub-type did not receive a response from police. Posts in Forward sub-type received the maximum number of responses from police (63.6%, 182 posts). Table 1 below summarizes the number of posts that did not receive police responses.

Table 1: Number of posts that received responses (N of Events) and censored event showing posts that did not get response from the police.

Automated Classifier for Serviceability:

Our work explores a series of statistical models to predict serviceable posts and its different types. The model makes use of the content based measures – emotions, cognitive attributes, linguistic, question posed, entity and topical attributes. We explore five different classification algorithms – Random Forest (RF), Logistic Regression (LR), Decision Trees (DT), Adaptive Boosted Decision Trees (ADT), and Gradient Boosting Classifier (GBC) using balanced class weights. Table 2 below reports the performance of different algorithms to correctly identify serviceable posts.

Table 2: Mean Performance after 10-fold CV of different algorithms to correctly identify serviceable posts.

Through our work, we believe technological interventions can help increase the interactions between police and citizens and thereby increase the trust people have on police. The police too may have a more directed and cost-labour efficient mechanism in dealing with any law and order situation reported on their Facebook page. This will increase the overall well-being and safety of society.

Link to the analysis portal

Link to the accounts portal:

Full citation & link to the paper: Sachdeva, N., and Kumaraguru, P. Call for Service: Characterizing and Modeling Police Response to Serviceable Requests on Facebook. Accepted at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW), 2017. PDF

 

 

 

 

What’s your MWI? : A social media based study of Mental Well-Being in college campuses

College students’ mental health concerns are a persistent issue; psychological distress in the form of depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges among college students is a growing health concern. However, very few university students actually seek help related to mental illness. This arises due to various barriers like limited knowledge about available psychiatric services and social stigma. Further, there is dearth of accurate, continuous and multi-campus data on mental well-being which presents significant challenges to intervention and mitigation strategies in college campuses.

Recent advances in HCI and social computing show that content shared on social media can enable accurate inference, tracking and understanding of the mental health concerns of users. There has also been work showing that college students appropriate social media for self-disclosure, support seeking and social connectedness. These facts, coupled with the pervasiveness of social media among college students, motivated us to examine the potential of social media as a “measure” for quantifying the mental well-being in a college population. Specifically, we focused on the following research goals:

  • Building and validating a machine learning model to identify mental health expressions of students in online communities
  • Analysing the lingusitic and temporal characteristics of the identified mental health content
  • Developing an index for the collective mental well-being in a campus, and examining it’s relationship with university attributes like academic prestige, enrollment size and student body demographics

We obtained a list of 150 ranked major universities in the US by crawling the US News website. We also obtained university metadata like gender distribution, tuition/fee during this crawl. Next, we crawled the Wikipedia pages for these 150 universities for extracting the student enrollment, type of university (public/private) and the setting (city/urban/suburban/rural) at each institute. Lastly, we obtained information on the racial diversity at each university from an article on Priceonomics. We study these universities in our work and use the metadata in our analysis.

Geographical distribution of the 150 ranked universities we studied

For social media data, we focus on Reddit. Reddit is known to be a widely used online forum and social media sites among the college student demographic. It’s forum structure allows creation of public online communities (known as “subreddits”), including many dedicated to specific college campuses. This allowed us to collect a large sample of posts shared by university students in one place. Although Facebook is likely more popular/widespread among students, it is challenging to use Facebook in such studies since the content shared is largely private, making it challenging to obtain such large data from it. Further, the semi-anonymous nature of Reddit enables candid self-disclosure around stigmatized topics like mental health.

After a manual search for subreddits for each university, we were able to identify public subreddit pages for 146 of the 150 universities. Next, we focused on correcting the “under-adoption” bias in subreddits. Subreddits which had a small fraction of Reddit users (as compared to university enrollment) were filtered out due to being under-representated. This left us with 109 universities with adequate Reddit representation. We leveraged the data on Google BigQuery (combined with some additional data collection) to get all posts ranging from June 2011 to February 2016. The final dataset used for our analysis included 446,897 posts from 152,834 unique users.

Since Reddit data does not contain any gold standard information on whether a post in a university subreddit is a mental health expression, our first goal was to use an inductive transfer learning approach to build a model to identify such content in a university subreddit. First, we include (as ground truth data) Reddit posts made on various mental health support communities. Prior work has established that, in these communities, individuals self-disclose a variety of mental health challenges explicitly. We use these posts as the “positive” posts and, parallelly, we utilize another set of Reddit posts, made on generic subreddits unrelated to mental health, as “negative” posts. We obtain 21,734 posts for each category, which we use as the positive and negative class for building a classifier. We observed a validation accuracy of 93% and an accuracy of 97% on a test set of 500 unseen, expert-annotated posts from our university subreddit data. We then proceeded to use this classifier for labelling the 446,397 other posts across the 109 university subreddits. Our classifier identified 13,914 posts (3.1%) to be mental health expressions, whereas the rest of the 432,483 posts were marked not about the topic. This corresponded to 9010 unique users out of a total of 152,834.

Next, we looked at the linguistic characteristics of the posts identified to be mental health expressions by conducting a qualitative examination of the top n-grams uniquely occuring in these posts. We found that students appropriate the Reddit communities to converse on a number of college, academic, relationship, and personal life challenges that relate to their mental well-being (“go into debt”, “doing poorly in”, “only one homework”, “up late”, “the jobs i”). The n-grams also indicated that certain posts contained explicit mentions of mental health challenges (“psychiatric”, “depression”, “killing myself”, “suicidal thoughts”), as well as the difficulties students face in their lives due to these experiences (“life isnt”, “issues with depression”, “was doing great”, “ruin”, “cheated”). Some of the top n-grams were also used in the context of seeking support (“need help”, “i really need”, “could help me”).

For the temporal analysis of mental health content, we first study the proportion of posts with mental health expression across the years. The figure below shows the content per year (along with a least squares line fit). We observed that the proportion of posts with mental health expressions has been on the rise — there is a 16% increase in 2015, compared to that in 2011.

We then looked at how this trend varies over the course of an academic year. The plots below show the trend separately for universities following the semester system and the quarter system. Between August and April, for the universities in the semester system, we observed an 18.5% increase in mental health expression; this percentage was much higher: 78% for those in the quarter system, when compared between September and May. On the other hand, we observed a reverse trend in mental health content during summer months, for both semester and quarter system universities.

Trend in the semester months
Trend in the quarter months
Trend in the summer months for quarter system universities

 

 

Trend in the summer months for semester system universities

 

 

 

Lastly, as a part of our third research goal, we formulated an index we refer to as the Mental Well-Being Index (MWI), as a measure of the collective mental well-being in a university subreddit, based on the posts labelled as mental health related by the classifier. We then computed the MWI metric for all 109 subreddits and examined it’s relationship with the university attributes.

 

 

 

 

 

By visualising these relationships (as above), we gleaned several interesting observations. We found:

  •  Universities with larger student bodies (enrollment) as well as greater proportion of undergraduates in their student bodies tend to be associated with lower MWI
  • MWI of the 66 public universities we consider, is lower, relative to that in the 43 private universities, by 332%
  •  MWI is lower in the 7 rural and 33 suburban universities by 40-266% compared to others, while it is the highest in the 31 universities categorized to be in cities (by 29-77%)
  • Universities with higher academic prestige (or low absolute value rank) and higher tuition tend to be associated with higher MWI
  • MWI tends to be lower in universities with more females (or sex ratio, male to female <= 1) by 850%

Further, although our data shows a marginally lower MWI in universities with greater racial diversity, we did not find statistical significance to support this claim.

Our work here (the complete paper accepted at CHI 2017) further details our analysis in depth. Below is an infographic for our work.

 

 

I have been Precog-ed (for life): Part 4

Holà! It’s the first day of 2017. All of us just got done with looking back at the past year, trying to fathom how time flies and life metamorphosizes. My life has taken a leap too and this is my last blog as a part of the ‘I have been Precog-ed’ series. Earlier, I have written about my first stint at research (Part 1), a wonderful summer at the Information Sciences Institute at Marina Delray, Los Angeles (Part 2), my first paper presentation at ICWSM 2016 in Germany (Part 3), and my time at Precog. This post is about the last 6 months of my journey and an attempt to express what being a Precog-er is all about (for more on this, please read the first three parts too). Being a Precog-er for more than 3 years, I have more thoughts than I can ever pen down; from being an undergrad who joined Precog as a noob to a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, my path has always been illuminated by the light of learning and hope.

April 2016 – I was struggling with end-sem preparations, document processing and Visa applications for my trip to ICWSM and my masters in the States, and the humdrum undergrad life when an unexpected email got an unexpected reaction from me –

“Dear Megha,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as an one of the 40 CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016 (out of 1461 applicants)! For nine weeks, CERN will be your host for what we hope is going to be an interesting, fun and active summer…”

I have been an amateur astronomer for 9 years, and getting to work at the ‘Mecca of Particle Physics’ would have been a dream come true. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. I was applying for my Schengen Visa for Germany (which would take another 2 weeks), and then I had to start my application for the US visa. I needed another Schengen Visa for Switzerland in a span of one week. On top of that, the only dates I could select for the internship were overlapping with my initial orientation schedule at CMU. I almost disrupted a meeting in PK’s office to break the news to him. I was sad. Pillars (Ph.D. students at Precog) and PK were convinced that I should try and if it doesn’t work out, so be it. That’s a Precog trait – not giving up until you have given your best shot! After cutting short the duration of my summer at CERN, pushing CMU to allow me to skip the orientations (convincing them that I’ll manage when I wasn’t sure myself I’ll), and getting my Schegen for Switzerland in a day (thanks to CERN’s administrative staff who made a special request for me to the embassy), I was ready for a summer at CERN.

I worked for 2 months at CERN’s data center on a storage system of ~125PB (one of the largest in the world). CERN openlab program includes a lecture series to helps CS students understand the Physics needed for some of the projects, trips to ETH Zürich and EPFL Lausanne, hackathons, and several means to help the students gain insights about the revolutionary projects spanning across 100 hectares in Switzerland and more than 450 hectares in France! It was a humbling experience, which entailed learning something new every day. Europeans have nailed the work-life balance too. Along with finishing my project on time, I managed to check Geneva, Lausanne, Lyon, Zürich, Paris, Montreux, Bern, Engelberg, Chamonix and many more off my list!

Delhi for 2 days, and Pittsburgh was my next destination, my home for the next 16 months. I am an MSCS student at CMU now. Last to arrive and one of the youngest of the lot, thanks to PK I had ample of background knowledge about life as a student here and the city of Pittsburgh. The experience I have gained at Precog comes in handy when I have to identify research gaps and solve hard problems. I feel more equipped and confident to take up the challenges that come along with grad life at a school like CMU.

Throughout these 6 months (Jul – Dec 2016), I have been working with a few Precog-ers on what we now call the Killfie project. It has turned out to be one of the most exciting projects I have worked on as a part of the group. It is the inclination to work on interesting problems with some brilliant people, which gives me the motivation to find time for this amongst courses and projects at CMU.

I cannot finish this blog without revisiting these lines from my first blog – “…PK, the heart and brain of Precog. He is the coolest adviser I have ever met and his skills and dexterity at work are almost mind-boggling. I came to know him as my Probability and Statistics professor, the role changed to being my adviser working at Precog and now I see him as a mentor for life..”. A lot of what I have been able to achieve in the last 3 years, I owe it to PK’s unconditional support. Thank you PK for illuminating my path always and for proving what good mentorship can accomplish!
My time at Precog has taught me how to help people, make friends, eliminate distractions and focus, improve daily, think big, fail often and give nothing short of your very best effort! I have had last minute unscheduled video calls in the middle of the night from the other end of the world with Precog-ers when I needed help. Pillars, interns, RAs – thank you each one of you for this experience. Even though I live in a different time-zone now and my attendance at the 4th floor Ph.D. lab has been at an all-time low, I know my association with the group will last forever.  As has been rightly put – ‘Once a Precog-er, always a Precog-er!’.

PS – Some pictures…

Just another day at Precog…
“It’s all about the people!”
The room where Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at CERN!
This one doesn’t need a caption… 🙂
The Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, “Step into the Void” at Chamonix (altitude – 3842m)
CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016