video, podcastJuly 7 2016

Ebola and the law of disaster experimentation

Sean McDonald

Databite No. 85

As an increasing number of industries digitize, the economy around data analysis – particularly predictive modeling – has exploded. The problem is, we don’t have any real way to understand, analyze, or predict the accuracy of these predictive models. There is no context where this has higher potential – for good and harm – than humanitarian emergencies.



One of the first, and worst, examples of this was the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In its response to the escalating crisis, the humanitarian community sought out significant amounts of sensitive mobile data, epidemiological data models, and digital engagement tools, without understanding the impact it would have on the response effort. Whether that’s considered humanitarian innovation or disaster experimentation, there’s little question that it raises a significant number of legal, ethical, and practical questions.

This talk focuses on the intersection of the public interest, the law, and the digital approaches that are increasingly defining the way that we invest public resources and provide public services. We talk about the Ebola case, the trends in public sector digitization, and what that means for the practical and legal protections of vulnerable groups.

Sean Martin McDonald works at the intersection of public interest technology, international law, and service delivery. He’s the CEO of FrontlineSMS and the author of “Ebola: A Big Data Disaster.”

About Databites
Data & Society’s “Databites” speaker series presents timely conversations about the purpose and power of technology, bridging our interdisciplinary research with broader public conversations about the societal implications of data and automation.