In the Philippines, data and songwriters help prepare for disasters

By Nicolas Zahn

A success story of open data and citizen empowerment, Project NOAH has played a crucial role in reducing the casualties from natural disasters in the Philippines.

Floods, landslides and storm surges are an unfortunate part of life in the Philippines. From maps and data to songwriters and celebrities, government is trying to use every resource available to minimise disasters’ impact on the population.

To demonstrate, Mahar Lagmay, Professor at the University of the Philippines, shows two pictures. The first shows the municipality of San Mateo, close to Manila, in 2009, with people desperately try to escape the rising tide. The second picture shows the same area in 2014. The tide is even higher but the people have already been evacuated.

What happened? Project NOAH, or the National Operational Assessment of Hazards, of which Lagmay is Executive Director. This project, now in its sixth year, lives up to the promise of open data and capacity building when it comes to more effective disaster response.

Project NOAH was able to provide information to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council which in turn used this information to create hazard-specific, time and area-focused warnings. This gave the local authorities “hours in advance time to evacuate the people in low lying areas that would get flooded”.

The project started in 2012 based on a directive by the president of the Philippines in response to the devastating Sendong disaster that hit cities in Mindanao, the southern-most island of the Philippines, hardest. “The idea was to create a responsive program for disaster prevention and mitigation”, explains Lagmay.

Bringing information to the people

One key element of this program is a data platform available to everyone, the Project NOAH website. It brings together “real-time information from satellite data, doppler data, water-level sensors” as well as weather data and historical disaster information.

“There are almost 2,000 sensors that were placed all over the Philippines that stream data every 15 minutes”, says Lagmay. His team also created floodmaps for about 70% of the entire country as well as landslide and storm maps, all in high-resolution to provide detailed information down to the local level.

In the interactive map, users can add various layers of information to create a map that highlights the relevant dangers for their area. The information is presented in a relatable format. Flooding levels, for example, are shown using local idol Manny Pacquiao to compare the heights.

Lagmay highlights the availability of data as a critical factor for effective disaster response. “Data needs to be available anytime, anywhere, because during emergencies it can be very valuable. All government agencies should provide this data openly to the public because it is for the public good.”

Project NOAH relies on technology to collect and analyse the data but also to ensure access to the data. To spread the information, Lagmay and his team use every available resource from the internet and social media to local governments.

Empowering the local population

But technology is not everything, especially in parts of the country that do not have reliable internet access. “What we do for those in the far flung areas, we try to go to them using participatory 3D mapping”, explains Lagmay. With this approach, models of the hazards are shown to the population and information about disasters is exchanged orally.
“We need to talk to musicians so that they can write songs and these songs can be used by the children to learn about disaster preparedness and disaster awareness.”
This is part of the second key element of Project NOAH - capacity building and citizen engagement on the local level. Scientific insights and the latest disaster data is not only shared with the local government units but also with the citizens that can then bring in their own questions and experiences.

To communicate with the local population, Lagmay’s team is also not afraid to cross academic boundaries. “Disaster risk reduction is not only for the scientists and engineers, we need the social scientists and artists to communicate effectively. We need to talk to musicians so that they can write songs and these songs can be used by the children to learn about disaster preparedness and disaster awareness.”

It is this combination of open data and local knowledge that really makes Project NOAH a success story. Neither the science nor the local knowledge alone are sufficient to reduce disaster risk. “It’s very important that the local knowledge and the science are complementing each other because we want to avoid those disasters that have not happened yet and which may be bigger than what the community has experienced,” Lagmay explains.

Since last year, Project NOAH has been transformed to the University of the Philippines NOAH Center. As the center is part of the Asian Network of Climate Science and Technology, Lagmay and his team travel throughout Asia to share their experiences and collaborate with various partners such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank.

Having spent a lifetime in disaster risk mitigation, Lagmay does not get tired. “The exciting part is that you get the people in the communities to see what is going on in the international scene in terms of science and technology and they are able to see it and make use of it for getting their families and their lives safe against disasters. We are actually getting to use the disaster platform to develop the country and make our country much better.”

After six years in operation, Project NOAH has lived up to the high hopes. People get evacuated more efficiently and development planners can take into account the most recent insights on disasters. By opening up knowledge and data and empowering citizens on the local level, the project provides a hopeful template for a region likely to continue suffering from natural disasters.