Data vs disaster: Inside the Philippines’ natural emergency preparedness programme

By Jaz Low

A country prone to frequent natural catastrophes is using information tools to mitigate their effects and at the same time advance social development.

One of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded struck the Philippines nine years ago. Six-metre storm surges hurled boats inland, collapsed buildings, and swept debris out to sea. Typhoon Haiyan devastated large parts of the country and left thousands of people dead.

The catastrophic typhoon indelibly underscored the importance of disaster response and recovery among the country’s authorities. Today, the Philippines has beefed up its resilience by creating a centralised database to predict natural hazards.

Constant vigilance 

Located in the Pacific typhoon belt, the Philippines experiences many forms of natural disasters. Alongside typhoons, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and landslides are common, causing much suffering and millions of dollars of damage.

In response to these threats, the United Nations Development Programme in the Philippines and the Australian government have launched a natural disaster mitigation initiative named SHIELD – the Strengthening Institutions and Empowering Localities against Disasters and Climate Change Program.

SHIELD aim is to facilitate work with local governments on building resilience against natural hazards and climate change.

One of the projects that SHIELD supports is GeoRiskPH, a multi-agency government initiative led by the Department of Science and Technology that serves as a centralised database to help government and the public anticipate and prepare for natural disasters.

“The information warehouse is vital in ensuring that there is fluid data sharing among agencies to optimise disaster planning,” says Rodolfo Calzado Jr, a Manila-based National Coordinator at the UNDP.

This database supports a number of functions. One function allows users to find out whether a location is prone to natural hazards, allowing them to zoom in to observe roads, bridges, houses and other infrastructure that might be vulnerable. It also produces hazard assessment reports in just 15 seconds, far more quickly than the one to three days it may take government agencies to generate them manually.

Another function of the database generates maps, charts and graphs to help members of the public understand the scale of impending disasters and take necessary precautions against them, showing exactly which areas of land, population groups and health facilities are likely to be affected.

Monitoring government money

In addition to working to mitigate natural disasters, the UNDP is also committed to advancing social development in the Philippines. It has created an application named Development through Local Indicators and Vulnerability Exposure Database (DevLIVE+) to monitor natural hazards and the delivery of social services.

DevLIVE+ helps authorities make decisions by studying a number of data sets, including geographic coordinates tagged to media. Such data can reveal that many people in a certain region may be seeking the types of financial relief available to single mothers, for instance, indicating that the government should divert more of those types of resources to the area.

By the same token, if large numbers of complaints are made about a particular policy, DevLIVE+ prompts authorities to implement changes.

Not only can authorities use DevLIVE+ to gauge how effective community programmes are, but they can use its data to improve budgeting. “They can allocate more funds to areas that require more interventions,” Calzado says.

Community focus

The Piagapo municipal government in the southern region of Mindanao used the DevLIVE+ database to target beneficiaries for a social assistance and relief goods distribution effort.

In the northern city of Vigan, DevLIVE+ data was crucial to helping the government plan and manage its early childhood care and development programme. Findings revealed that many children lagged behind in reading skills for their age group, so the city put together an after-school reading programme to boost comprehension skills. Initially, 30 per cent of children were deemed to possess inadequate reading abilities, but by the end of the initiative, that figure had dropped to 10 per cent.

The city also developed the Vigan Access Card, which will allow people to access public services. Through the card, the city government will be able to track beneficiaries of its programmes and be more proactive in delivering services to the underserved through DevLIVE+.

The UNDP will continue to support the Philippines disaster risk management efforts and fine-tune its social development programmes. Although Typhoon Haiyan might have left the country on the back foot in 2013, data is helping to prepare Philippine communities on all fronts today.