Feb. 17, 2006 would forever be remembered as a day of great tragedy for the people of Barangay Guinsaugon in Saint Bernard town, Southern Leyte. That day, a small earthquake triggered a landslide that saw an entire section of a mountain bury nearly 1,500 people.
A little-known episode in what would be known as the Guinsaugon tragedy involved a teacher who texted that she and around 400 children were trapped in an elementary school under a mass of land. The text had GPS coordinates, but it was still difficult for the evacuation team to locate its exact location because of the sheer size of the landslide.
“It was one of the biggest landslides in the world, that happened in the past century, which overwhelmed Guinsaugon and its population of 1,857,” said geologist Mahar Lagmay.
“We knew there was a GPS point, but that GPS point was of millimeter-scale accuracy. There was data, but it was not made available. The GPS point was given only the seventh day. And on the seventh day, they tried to locate the elementary school, but it was too late.”
Lagmay, who teaches at the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geology, was speaking at the presentation of his study “An Open Data Law for Climate Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction” organized by independent think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute.
The Guinsaugon tragedy, he said, demonstrates just how the availability of data is not only crucial in an effective climate resilience and disaster risk reduction policy, it can even save lives in critical situations. This means that there must be a push to compel both government and private institutions to share data that might prove key in disaster management.
He said: “In order for us to communicate and to build trust, we must have open data. We must have open access. We must have open knowledge, open science, and open government … Open data is data that can be freely used, shared and built-on by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose.”
For disaster risk reduction, you’ll never know what data you might need, he said. During emergencies like the Guinsaugon landslide, time is of the essence, and so such data must be readily available without asking for anything.
The combination of the country’s disaster profile and the “new normal” brought about by the effects of climate change makes this imperative to institutionalize an open data law for climate resilience and disaster risk reduction extra urgent, said professor Dindo Manhit, Stratbase ADRi President.
“We’re one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, as well as other natural disasters, owing mainly to our geographical location. Worse, the consequence of these disasters is aggravated by poor infrastructure, which is more pronounced in the countryside, where, tragically, calamities more frequently occur,” he said.
For lawyer Lysander Castillo, Secretary General of Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship, such data-sharing law can jumpstart our efforts in responding to natural calamities and become the basis for sound disaster management. Given the cumbersome bureaucracy, it can push government agencies to the right direction.
“We have manpower challenges, technology challenges, capacity challenges and that’s where having a law is an advantage. We have to allocate a lot of resources as against merely promulgating executive or administrative orders. This kind of initiative that you have to put your resources into reversing a culture and a bureaucracy. This is the value of having a law lies.”
Echoing this was engineer Ludwig Federigan, executive director and co-founder of the Young Environmental Forum, who said that a legislated open data policy represents a clear step toward having climate-resilient communities and, eventually, country.
“We cannot achieve climate resiliency if the available data are delayed in delivery, are denied, or withheld using the issues of cost recovery, sustainability, and intellectual property,” he said, adding that adopting an open data law on climate resilience and disaster risk reduction further strengthens the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
The good news is the Department of Information and Communications Technology is in fact already in the process of proposing the passage of a law on open data, said Maria Teresa Magno-Garcia, Director of DICT’s National ICT Governance Service.
“In drafting this e-government bill, we are proposing a section on data sharing and open data. There is going to be a technical working group, and we’re going to sit down to flesh out the provisions.”
Political science professor and Stratbase ADRi trustee Francisco Magno said the ecosystem involved in making data relevant available requires a “society approach” but that government institutions must initially take the reins.
“Right now our Freedom of Information policy only applies to the executive because of an executive order. But a law will have to be applied to the different government branches including congress, the judiciary, and the local government units.”
The multi-sectoral forum of scientists, government, academe and civil society was unanimous in support of the legislative initiative of Lagmay and should become a priority of our lawmakers. The technologies already exist for effective disaster management but these needed to be backed by the most accurate information that should be open to all.