Ebola: A Big Data Disaster?

Ebola: A Big Data DisasterEver since the Haiti earthquake, humanitarian organizations and academics have taken an interest in how mobile phone records can help improve disaster response. In most cases, the hope is that by looking at where people are, you also know where to bring aid. In the case of the Ebola epidemic, the hope was that by analysing call data records (CDRs) it would be possible to predict how the disease spreads. Both Guinea and Sierra Leone have made CDRs available to international organizations as part of the Ebola response while Liberia has not.

In this paper Sean Martin McDonald, the CEO of Frontline SMS, is analysing a few critical questions:

  • Was it legal for mobile phone providers to hand over the CDRs?
  • Were CDRs necessary or useful to predict the spread of the disease?
  • Does the potential use of CDRs justify the significant invasion of privacy?
  • How can we improve the management of sensitive, personal data in emergencies?

I don’t agree with Sean on all points, but I find this document to be an extremely valuable contribution to a discussing we should be having: are we violating the rights of people when accessing their data without consent, is this data even useful and could the same information be obtained in a different and less intrusive way?

In addition to the moral and protection issues associated with these questions, Sean shows how mobile phone providers, governments and international organizations have likely broken national and international laws and could be held liable for these violations.