FHS Seminar Series - Tracking Ebola with Phones and Drones: Limits of Big Data in Epidemic Containment

by Dr. Susan Erikson, Associate Professor, FHS, SFU

September 27, 2018

Event Type

Seminar Series


September 27, 2018 at 12:00 pm to 1:15 pm


Blusson Hall, Room 9920


Evidence from Sierra Leone reveals the significant limitations of big data during epidemics. Early in the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, big data – specifically, Call Detail Record (CDR) data collected from millions of cell phones – was hyped as able to stop the disease by tracking contagious people. It did not work. In this article, I trace how big data’s containment failures are closely linked to 1) what computational epidemiologists did not understand about the social lives of cell phones in Sierra Leone; 2) the misapplication of a big data malaria mobility model to Ebola; and 3) assumptions of network coverage. Big data experiments during epidemics can have opportunity costs: namely, forestalling urgent response. The talk includes a discussion of the value of ethnographic data and narrative knowledge in effective disease containment. The speaker is an anthropologist who was in Sierra Leone with a research team when Ebola broke out.


Dr. Erikson is medical anthropologist who has worked in Africa, Europe, Central Asia, and North America. She studies technologies of global health, both their hardware (like smart phones and ultrasound machines) and their software (like health indicators, big data algorithms, and policy). She has won several awards for her research scholarship, most recently the Virchow Prize for her work on global health data. Dr. Erikson’s research has been funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and many others.

  • This Seminar Series is open to the SFU and the Broader Research Community.  
  • This seminar may be webcast.
  • A light lunch will be available at this seminar.  
  • The FHS Research Seminar Series is an Accredited Small Group Learning by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.