At #VABrainTrust, Government Allies With Tech to Help Vets With PTSD

VAHackathon working

For military veterans, survival is about much more than returning home safely. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF), also known as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are the longest combat operations since the Vietnam war. More than 2.7 million soldiers served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and research suggests that 10 to 18 percent are likely to suffer from PTSD after they return.

This past weekend, engineers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, and healthcare professionals came together at Galvanize in San Francisco and Capital Factory in Austin for the #VABrainTrust, a hackathon focused on developing brain health innovations for veterans experiencing mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than 10 teams developed and pitched a variety of ideas, from social media-scraping bots that tweet links to a suicide hotline to a physical temple massager device that delivers acupressure and aromatherapy, with the top-three teams receiving $3,000 in travel money to show off their innovations at a showcase in Washington, DC later this year.

While the number of diagnosed cases of PTSD and mTBI among veterans is very high, a major issue is that the number of actual cases is likely much higher. Many cases of brain injury and mental health go undiagnosed or untreated, as not all soldiers enroll in the VA or seek health care upon returning home.

Several of the hackathon’s projects focused on this issue, building tools that would scrape social media sites, particular groups and communities for veterans, analyzing text patterns to identify if an individual might have or be at risk for PTSD. P-Text was one such project: it uses natural language processing to identify PTSD and get people help, even if they’re not currently enrolled in the VA.

A project called Where We Are focused on tackling suicide in the military community. It scrapes Twitter and uses a machine learning algorithm to identify soldiers who might be having suicidal thoughts, then tweets at them information about suicide hotlines and other ways to get help. One of its issues, though, was that the bot initially ran into problems with false positives, such as people sarcastically saying “I’m going to kill myself” in response to minor incidents. After identifying and fixing the issue, the algorithm is now more than 90 percent accurate. Where We Are took home second-place honors, and will go on to be featured in DC.


The winning team, which contained five Galvanize students, built a project called Yellow Ribbon, a “veterans for veterans” Q&A platform for vets to learn how to navigate the VA system. In addition to providing access to helpful information from other veterans with experience dealing with the VA, the platform uses text analysis to identify the particular issue an individual is seeking information about and deliver more relevant information.

Yellow Ribbon and Where We Are will be joined at the showcase in Washington, DC by HERO Squared, a project that uses predictive modeling and analyzes risk factors (standard health information as well as veteran-specific things such as combat exposure, injuries, etc.) to determine which patients are the most at risk for PTSD. The goal of the project is to “save the VA money” by focusing services and care on vets who are the most at risk.

Events such as the upcoming 2016 Brain Trust Innovation Showcase are a function of the leadership of U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, who assumed office in July, 2014. Under McDonald, the VA has undertaken a massive overhaul, part of which involves forming partnerships with private firms, nonprofits, and other outside groups it previously did not engage with.

At the showcase in April, these three winners (along with other teams selected from similar hackathons across the country) will have the opportunity to present their projects to Secretary McDonald, the VA’s under secretary for health, and other industry leaders.