By Kelley Johnson
Data collected by local citizens on the ground in places that might be inaccessible to the people who usually collect this data due to conflict, natural disasters or geographic distance has become more common in recent years thanks to the prevalence of cell phones and various information channels. This boon to data collection can help governments, policy makers and NGOs in ways that traditionally-collected data often fell short.
One example given in the Geojournal paper Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy was the tracking of cell phones during the cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, with the idea that this tracking could help determine the level of disaster and displacement before anyone could be sent to the area to survey the destruction . When we think about conflict and disasters today, such as the Syrian war and the violence in Iraq, it seems like this type of data collection could be invaluable for logistical, military and aid purposes.
However, did the people we could potentially be observing fleeing a bombed city or trying to escape an outbreak of a communicable disease agree to this tracking? When we consider that, in most studies, people are actively participating, or are at least aware that they are participating, is it ethical to use these individuals’ locations and calling habits for a larger numerical study? If I fill out a census form, I know that I am participating in a data collection; but just because I’m carrying a cell phone doesn’t mean I’m willing to provide information about my activities. What carries more weight: potential for the greater good or an individual’s right to privacy?
All in all, as the prevalence of cell phones continues to spread throughout the Global South, these are the kinds of questions that we will have to consider going into the future. Perhaps we are all becoming used to a little bit less privacy, knowing that photos and words shared online will never disappear; and, in a few years, constant data monitoring may become something of a norm.
No matter what, I think political scientists can look forward to more and more data from all over the world, and perhaps even more debate about the ethics of these practices.
1. Taylor L, Schroeder R. 2015: Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as tool for international development policy. GeoJournal 11 october 2014