One man’s mission to stop gang violence using social media

Too many of Desmond Patton’s students on Chicago’s South side were struggling to keep their focus when they came to school.

The reason why rocked Patton to his core.

“As I was sitting and talking to kids they would be like, my best friend was sitting there yesterday, he’s dead, or my brother was shot yesterday,” Patton recalls. “I was like ‘How can I sit and focus on grades and test scores when these young people are losing people day to day?’”

–Black Lives Matter, my mother and September 11th

Patton, now an assistant professor at Columbia University, is doing his very best to change that. Inspired by the tragic experiences of his former students, he’s working to create an algorithm he thinks can prevent violence and possible homicides in Chicago. To do so, Patton and his team of researchers are developing ways to track social media activity which he says is directly linked to violent crime in the Chicago area.

Columbia University recently awarded Desmond a $100,000 grant allowing him to develop computational tools aimed at predicting and detecting communication that can lead to gun violence in Chicago. The algorithm, he says, is different from what police departments currently use.
Patton’s model involves a team of researchers who will be taking a holistic approach when examining data. According to Patton, researchers will take a look at things like pictures shared, rap music, videos and more. Part of implementing it also involves using a team of  young people to translate and interpret social media context on sites like Twitter and Facebook.
The results will then be analyzed by scientists.
While the project is in its early stages, researchers plan to look for continuous use of aggressive content and language exclusive to gangs on social media sites in high-risk Chicago neighborhoods. This will allow the team to create codes for such language as a “violence predictor.”
“There are a number of individuals who may not be gang-affiliated but sound like someone that is,” Patton told “If you are not gang-affiliated, these communications can lead to offline injury, homicide or violence.”
The goal is to work with violence outreach organizations like Cure Violence in Chicago.  The organization helps monitor aggressive social media behavior for Patton’s team. Right now, there are no plans to share information with police but to share the information with government and community organizations focused on reducing gang violence.
“I’m seeing people say, ‘I’m hurt. I’m in pain…This is is what’s happening in my life, in Inglewood or the West Side of Chicago, and then things escalate over time,'” Patton said. “[They say]…’But our young people are not inherently violent, they have a lot going on and they’re using the space to cope.”
According to police officials, there have been 500 homicides in Chicago so far this year. More than 3000 people have been shot, according to a Chicago Tribune report. In all of 2015, that number was 2,980.
Chicago police also actively monitor social media sites. Last week, Chicago police caught two men, one affiliated with a gang, on Facebook Live at a gun range. Both were barred from possessing firearms because of previous weapons convictions.
They were both charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.
“I constantly see in these tweets, grief and trauma and stress that probably is going unchecked,” Patton said of why his work is so meaningful. “And young people feel very comfortable for some reason to express this deep vulnerable state, but what’s happening to it?”