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[liberationtech] Ebola: A Big Data Disaster

Sean McDonald seanmartinmcdonald at
Mon Mar 7 02:05:30 PST 2016

Hi Louis,

Thanks for the kind response - great to hear that these issues are getting
some attention at the Strata + Hadoop Event.

One of the key points for me is that while the ethics of this are very
important, the frame of the conversation continues to ignore that there are
also laws that have a tremendous impact on the way these processes and
systems should be defined. In other words, the more general talk of ethics
is important, but it belies the more concerning reality, which is that
ignoring the current state of practice (particularly in international
contexts, with highly sensitive data) leaves organizations open to a lot of
legal liability.

It is just a matter of time before both financially and ethically motivated
lawyers realize the opportunities created by the current state of practice.
My concerns aren't such that I think we should abandon (what feels like the
inevitable) digitization or data modeling, but that we need to rapidly
invest in the capacity, processes, and regulatory infrastructure necessary
to help make practice compliant and safe.

Let me know if there are ways I can be helpful to your talk or to advancing
the conversation!


On Sat, Mar 5, 2016 at 3:53 PM, Louis Suárez-Potts <luispo at> wrote:

> Sean,
> Thanks for posting this. I'll be reading the case study this weekend. It's
> somewhat relevant to a talk I'll be giving later this month at the Strata +
> Hadoop conference, in San José, CA, on Big Data Ethics. I touch on the
> problem (read: fraught opportunity & responsibility) posed by the "Big
> Data" for government (and also private sector) actors. The Liberia instance
> is—lamentably—a good example of (quasi-) state failure that also points, I
> think we all hope, to what ought to be done, or more strongly, what must be
> done, if the protection of the local, regional, and even global populations
> is to be taken seriously by those we elect to be accountable.
> -louis
> > On 02 Mar 16, at 12:21, Sean McDonald <seanmartinmcdonald at>
> wrote:
> >
> > I'm excited to present some new research: "Ebola: A Big Data Disaster,"
> published by the Center for Internet & Society (with support from the Media
> Democracy Fund). It's a look at the way that technology was used during the
> Ebola response - with a focus on Call Detail Records, the experimental
> nature of data modeling in humanitarian response, and how that likely
> violates West Africa's well-developed (but under-implemented) data laws.
> >
> > My hope is that it will kick off a larger discussion about the risks
> (legal and operational) of digitizing humanitarian response - especially
> when it involves the use of large scale, sensitive data like CDRs (all
> anonymization and re-identification caveats apply). As practice stands,
> international organizations are likely putting themselves and the people
> they help at considerable risk, in violation of human rights law, data
> protection law, local regulation, and potentially commercial property law
> (among other theories of litigation).
> >
> > This case study focuses on Liberia, which didn't turn over CDR access -
> but many of the same operational considerations and laws apply in Sierra
> Leone and Guinea, where several mobile network operators did.
> >
> > I'd love any thoughts, connections to people working on these issues, or
> critical feedback.
> >
> > Best,
> > Sean
> > --
> > Liberationtech is public & archives are searchable on Google. Violations
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