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Alternative Phone Facts: How and Why Big Data Failed to Map the 2014 Ebola Outbreak Terrains

Susan Erikson
Associate Professor for Global Health at Simon Fraser University
Date and Time: 
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - 12:00

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


Early in the 2014, Big Data’s algorithmic functions were heralded by US academics for announcing the Ebola outbreak before global health organizations. Later in the epidemic, telecommunications tower and cell phone ‘ping’ data were aggregated with significant excitement, fanfare, and anticipation: Big Data would also help stop the infectious and fatal disease by tracking the movements and migrations of contagious people. This paper analyzes ethnographic, cartographic, and spacial evidence from Sierra Leone that show the limitations of Big Data to eradicate Ebola, including a discussion of the social life of cell phones. In addition to identifying ethical concerns about human contagion tracking by phone and drone, the paper shows that phones did not serve well as beacons of contagion because they do not operate as inalienable indicators of individual property and identity in Sierra Leone. Dr. Susan Erikson was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, with a research team during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

A pre-circulated paper is the basis for this talk and discussion.

This event is ssponsored by the environmental anthropology and medical anthropology clusters