Nova Scotia

Feds to search social media using AI to find patterns of suicide-related behaviour

The federal government will launch a pilot project using artificial intelligence to monitor social media in search of trends that may indicate imminent spikes in suicide rates.

Canadian government to hire company that uses artificial intelligence to identify online trends

Using artificial intelligence to analyze social media trends, the company hired by the federal government claims it could predict surges in suicide rates, including the precise region where they will occur. (CBC)

The Canadian government will soon hire an Ottawa-based company specializing in social media monitoring and artificial intelligence to forecast potential spikes in suicide risk.

A contract with Advanced Symbolics Inc., an AI and market research firm, is set to be finalized next month.

Working with the company to develop its strategy, the federal government will define "suicide-related behaviour" on social media and "use that classifier to conduct market research on the general population of Canada," according to a document published to Public Works website.

This pilot project will last three months, after which the government "will determine if future work would be useful for ongoing suicide surveillance," the tender document said.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Canadians aged 10 to 19, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"To help prevent suicide, develop effective prevention programs and recognize ways to intervene earlier, we must first understand the various patterns and characteristics of suicide-related behaviours," a PHAC spokesperson said in an email statement. 

"PHAC is exploring ways to pilot a new approach to assist in identifying patterns, based on online data, associated with users who discuss suicide-related behaviours."

Predicting Trump, Trudeau and Brexit

Instead of calling people to assess public opinion, Advanced Symbolics conducts its market research by identifying and tracking social media accounts to build a representative sample of a population.

Advanced Symbolics' chief scientist, Kenton White, uses online artificial intelligence technology to predict real-life events, including elections and consumer trends. (Advanced Symbolics)

Many phone surveys poll roughly 1,500 people, but Advanced Symbolics said its representative sample of Canada's population uses more than 160,000 social media accounts. 

And the company said its market research method has been accurate where many others have failed.

"We're the only research firm in the world that was able to accurately predict Brexit, the Hillary and Trump election, and the Canadian election of 2015," said CEO Erin Kelly.

'We're not violating anybody's privacy'

Advanced Symbolics said its artificial intelligence looks for trends, not individual cases.

"It'd be a bit freaky if we built something that monitors what everyone is saying and then the government contacts you and said, 'Hi, our computer AI has said we think you're likely to kill yourself'," said Kenton White, chief scientist with Advanced Symbolics.

Instead, the AI will flag communities or regions where multiple suicides could be likely. For example, Cape Breton Island was left reeling last year after three teenagers in the region died by suicide.

"The spike that happened in Cape Breton, as unfortunate as it is, we can learn patterns from that," White said. "We can also learn patterns from what happened in Saskatchewan, patterns from Northern communities, patterns from college students."

"We're not violating anybody's privacy — it's all public posts," added Kelly. "We create representative samples of populations on social media, and we observe their behaviour without disturbing it."

Sending support before the suicides

In the weeks following the suicides in Cape Breton, the provincial government sent additional counsellors and mental health experts to the region. 

According to Advanced Symbolics, artificial intelligence could offer a two- to three-month warning before a potential spike in suicides occurs. And sharing that information with government officials could prompt them to mobilize mental health resources before a crisis, instead of afterward.

The company will begin defining suicide-related behaviour in January, with monitoring slated to start later in 2018.

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support, including your doctor or Nova Scotia's Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team at (902) 429-8167. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also has information about where to find help.


Brett Ruskin


Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.