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Sean McDonald - Ebola: A Big Data Disaster

We are proud to initiate the CIS Papers series with a fascinating exploration of humanitarian use of big data and its discontents by Sean McDonald, FrontlineSMS, in the context of utilisation of Call Detail Records for public health response during the Ebola crisis in Liberia. The paper highlights the absence of a dialogue around the significant legal risks posed by the collection, use, and international transfer of personally identifiable data and humanitarian information, and the grey areas around assumptions of public good. The paper calls for a critical discussion around the experimental nature of data modeling in emergency response due to mismanagement of information has been largely emphasized to protect the contours of human rights.
Sean McDonald - Ebola: A Big Data Disaster

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Preface

This study titled “Ebola: A Big Data Disaster” by Sean Martin McDonald, undertaken with support from the Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Media Democracy Fund, explores the use of Big Data in the form of Call Detail Record (CDR) data in humanitarian crisis.

It discusses the challenges of digital humanitarian coordination in health emergencies like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the marked tension in the debate around experimentation with humanitarian technologies and the impact on privacy. McDonald’s research focuses on the two primary legal and human rights frameworks, privacy and property, to question the impact of unregulated use of CDR’s on human rights. It also highlights how the diffusion of data science to the realm of international development constitutes a genuine opportunity to bring powerful new tools to fight crisis and emergencies.

Analysing the risks of using CDRs to perform migration analysis and contact tracing without user consent, as well as the application of big data to disease surveillance is an important entry point into the debate around use of Big Data for development and humanitarian aid. The paper also raises crucial questions of legal significance about the access to information, the limitation of data sharing, and the concept of proportionality in privacy invasion in the public good. These issues hold great relevance in today's time where big data and its emerging role for development, involving its actual and potential uses as well as harms is under consideration across the world.

The paper highlights the absence of a dialogue around the significant legal risks posed by the collection, use, and international transfer of personally identifiable data and humanitarian information, and the grey areas around assumptions of public good. The paper calls for a critical discussion around the experimental nature of data modelling in emergency response due to mismanagement of information has been largely emphasized to protect the contours of human rights.

This study offers an important perspective for us at the Centre for Internet and Society, and our works on Privacy, Big Data, and Big Data for Development, and very productively articulates the risks of adopting solutions to issues important for development without taking into consideration legal implications and the larger impact on human rights. We look forward to continue to critically engage with issues raised by Big Data in the context of human rights and sustainable development, and bring together diverse perspectives on these issues.

- Elonnai Hickok, Policy Director, the Centre for Internet and Society

 

CIS Papers

The CIS Papers series publishes open access monographs and discussion pieces that critically contribute to the debates on digital technologies and society. It includes publication of new findings and observations, of work-in-progress, and of critical review of existing materials. These may be authored by researchers at or affiliated to CIS, by external researchers and practitioners, or by a group of discussants. CIS offers editorial support to the selected monographs and discussion pieces. The views expressed, however, are of the authors' alone.

 

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Author

Sumandro Chattapadhyay

As a Director at CIS, I co-lead the [email protected] programme, and engage with academic and policy research on data governance and digital economy. I can be reached at sumandro[at]cis-india[dot]org.