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Facebook Is Tracking Africa’s Users To Warn Them Of Ebola

It’s just a small taste of what web giants do with our data when it’s leveraged for social good.

Facebook Is Tracking Africa’s Users To Warn Them Of Ebola
[Top photo: Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty Images]

If you’ve used Facebook in or around West Africa recently (okay, chances are you haven’t), it’s likely that you’ve seen a notification delivered from Unicef and the local government. It lists the symptoms of Ebola: a sudden fever, diarrhea, or vomiting, and warns you to get to a health facility immediately if you have any of these ailments.

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It’s a simple, straightforward message, delivered in the proper local language. And it’s a perfect example of what companies like Facebook can do with its technology when it’s used for social service rather than just ads.


It’s so easy and so obvious, that it makes me question why Facebook isn’t doing this level of social service all the time–and not just Facebook–Twitter too, and definitely Google (because if Google can see who is getting the flu, couldn’t they warn the right areas to get flu shots?). Especially since it only requires the tiniest sliver of their ad-serving muscle–location tracking–to warn them of Ebola’s symptoms.

Countless apps on your phone are already tracking your location. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Foursquare, sure, but even random news and novelty sites will ask for permissions to track you via your web browser. This data mining is nothing new. It’s the bread and butter of ad networks, which want to feed you the best, most relevant ads possible. (Because a relevant ad to you is a valuable ad to them.)

In Facebook’s case, they’re working with a lot more data than most. They see your friends. They see which friends you actually interact with. They track your location in the physical world, and then they follow you around on the web, too. And for the most part, this invasiveness breeds a lot of controversy (because, yes, it’s invasive profiteering).


A number of years ago, I sat in the audience at TEDMED while a satellite map maker pointed out that his technology could spot the types of foliage blooms that often correlated with mosquito, and thereby, malaria outbreaks. The problem was, even if they honed the tech, they didn’t have the communicative channels to reach affected populations.

Just a few years later, our greatest data collectors are also the companies who talk to us the most. It’s proving to be a profitable intersection for Facebook. Now let’s see what it can do for the rest of us.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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