Resiliency Amidst Devastation

Mason School of Business undergraduate student Pat Austria and her teammates (Jinkyu Kwon, Matt Burns and Daniel Mihalov) won top honors in the SEcon2012 poster competition. They were selected to receive the seed money to begin their project, which involves improvements in the disaster management and warning systems in the Philippines. — Ed.

Originally, I had hoped that my time in the Philippines would consist of piloting my project in select cities. As I had mentioned earlier, I received the support from the League of Cities to help me connect with mayors to facilitate pilot implementation. However for better or for worse, I was able to acquire more funding for my project  which changed the scope of possibility. I had originally worried that my limited funding would mean that I could only develop a lower quality prototype that I would hand off to the government to improve upon.

Of course, this was a tremendous risk for, as we all know, it is extremely difficult and strenuous for governments to act upon new projects given the systems and protocols that must be followed. With the new funding, it suddenly became clear that the project could become greater than I ever thought. It could have more advanced systems, and quality infrastructure with higher capacities. The new funding also came later than I expected therefore I was unable to finalize my contracts with the developer. In my correspondence with my developer, he mentioned that software development would take about 2 -3 months–meaning, that no matter what I did, the software I would want would not be ready this summer.

While I was frustrated, I knew that I couldn’t sacrifice the quality of the project to satisfy my personal deadline. I found myself presented with an interesting opportunity. Throughout this entire process, I was committed to ensuring that the project reflected the Philippine landscape and was not merely a product of Western ideologies and assumptions. After all, I had spent a majority of concept design time in DC and Virginia.Therefore I decided that my time would be best spent talking to the stakeholders and involving them directly in the development process. I reformed my original project concept to reflect the advice of those I had talked to as well as the government’s new disaster management initiative.

Below is my revised project brief taking into account my new findings:

Each year, over a thousand lives are taken and over a hundred million dollars are lost due to natural disasters in the Philippines. Despite this high susceptibility to natural disasters, the Philippines has suffered greatly from significant gaps in warning, emergency response, and relief coordination. However, recent advances in technology and social consciousness allow for significant improvements in the current system. I propose the creation of a centralized national disaster platform that employs SMS capabilities and crowd-sourcing tools to create a system that adheres to the different needs of the various stakeholders after a disaster. The use of such a system will enhance the capability of the national and local governments to plan and prepare, as well as extend assistance, in the event of a disaster.

The Current State of Philippine Disaster Management
Highly susceptible to typhoons, earthquakes, volcanoes, and flooding, the Philippines currently ranks as the world’s third most disaster prone country in the world.[i] In 2009 alone, the Philippines experienced 191 natural and human induced disasters affecting more than 13.6 million people.[ii] The problem is further intensified by the fact that one-third of the country lives in poverty—making them extremely vulnerable to disasters.[1][iii] The limited reach of the current warning systems and the challenges to effective coordination among rescue and relief organizations have led to many avoidable casualties and infrastructure damages. While the government has committed to improving disaster management practices and building resilience throughout the country, a centralized and integrated disaster management system has yet to be implemented.

The Imperative of an Integrative Disaster Management System
It is critical that a centralized and integrative approach is adopted in order to create the necessary information flow between the stakeholders. The system must also leverage the societal capacity with technological capabilities in order to effectively resolve the bottlenecks in the current procedures. The proposed system will exhibit the following core competencies:

Early Warning Systems

  • Problem: Currently, the government relies on radio, television, and Internet outlets to disseminate disaster information. This poses a problem considering that many impoverished people have limited access to these outlets, especially during a natural disaster. The problem is compounded when electricity is cut off during an emergency.
  • Method: Using Frontline: SMS, the system would send out a warning message via text to affected populations as soon as a disaster is detected.
  • Value: With the country’s cell phone penetration rate expected to reach 98% by 2015[iv], the government will be able to reach a wider audience more quickly and efficiently by using SMS technology.

 

Victim Map for Rescue and Relief

  • Problem: Despite the imperative of timeliness and efficiency, the high volume and complexity of victim information during a disaster can impedethe coordination and deployment of rescue operations.
  • Method: Pairing Frontline: SMS and the Ushahidi platform, victims will be able to SMS their location onto a centralized map where the government and relief organizations can monitor and coordinate rescue and relief operations. Furthermore, this provides people in the community with the information to assist victims in proximity to them.
  • Value: By having a centralized map of victim and shelter locations, the government will be able to deploy rescue operators based on proximity and capacity, as well as provide the necessary relief to both formal and informal shelters.

 

Road Status Map

  • Problem: Valuable time and man-power is compromised during attempts to provide rescue and relief due to roads and bridges being damaged in the wake of a disaster. There does not currently exist a centralized platform where organizations and people can report damages to transport systems.
  • Method: Using the same technology as that of the victim map, the Road Status Map will allow users to report damages on roads and other transport systems by uploading messages, pictures, videos, or news links to the map. Furthermore, users will also be able to upload any alternate routes that they know of.
  • Value: By having a constantly updated map of the status of roads and transport systems, stakeholders can save valuable time and energy  during operations.

Donor Coordination

  • Problem: There is an influx of relief assistance that comes in the wake of a natural disaster; however, they vary in quality, quantity, and relevance.
  • Method: Using Frontline SMS and Ushahidi, donors will be able to input what kind and amount of goods are being sent to a particular town onto a centralized map.
  • Value: Using the system, the government can keep track of which goods are going to where and therefore can funnel appropriate relief goods to where it is needed most.

 

[i] “Overview: Philippines.” OCHA | Coordination Saves Lives. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.unocha.org/ocha2012-13/philippines>.

[ii] Philippine Disaster Report. Quezon City, Philippines: Citizens’ Disaster Response Center, 2009. <http://www.cdrc-phil.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/2009-Philippine-Disaster-Report.pdf>.

[iii] “The Philippines | OCHA.” OCHA | Coordination Saves Lives. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.unocha.org/where-we-work/philippines>.

[iv] “Mobile Phone Penetration in RP to Reach 98 Percent by 2015: Report.” Mobile Phone Penetration in RP to Reach 98 Percent by 2015: Report. PhilStar: News for the Philippine Global Community. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=617231>.

In the comfort of my home in Mclean, Virginia, I was gripped with worry as I read of the devastating floods that had hit the Philippines.

This sense of fear and anxiety, I had grown accustomed to in all my years living in the Philippines, the time I spent there during the summer, and even the time I spend away. Natural disasters are a fact of life for the Filipinos, and while this does not take away the fear, sadness, and anxiety, that comes with each storm, it has only strengthened the spirit of the Filipino people. “We have done it before, and we will do it again” This message of strength and confidence, as well as many others, circulated the internet even before the storms had passed. Filipinos are known to be some of the happiest and most resilient people in the world despite the poverty and hardship that surrounds them. This resiliency is highlighted and strengthened with each devastating storm that ravages the country. The unrelenting spirit of the people has grown to such an extent that it no longer just acts as source of personal strength, but has moved on to become the foundation of humanitarianism, heroism, and sacrifice all over the country.

The recent flooding was no exception. Poor beggars on the street risked their lives to unclog drains as to prevent further flooding, malls and schools opened their doors to become evacuation centers, and thousands of prisoners in the city jail were reported to have given up their daily food to give to flood victims. Thousands of  businesses, organizations, and people from the lowest to the highest classes spent the following day volunteering as rescuers, relief operators, and more.

For awhile, I felt so helpless. I was so proud of my countrymen for rising to the occasion and helping in any capacity they could, and I wished that I could be there to do my part. However, I quickly reminded myself that while I was abroad and the project was not yet ready for implementation, this did not change my ability or obligation to help. This summer was an incredible journey that reaffirmed my faith in my project because of its possibility. However, in the past couple of days, I have reignited my passion for this project because of its necessity. Given all the resources and wonderful support around me, I knew I had to answer to the courage of the people on the ground by doing my part here. I could not waste time feeling helpless and guilty for not being there.

So where do I go from here? With this amazing summer coming to a close, I realize that the work is just beginning. Contracts with developers are being signed, and I have received an email from the Head of the League of Cities informing me that mayors are ready and interested. I wish I could express how extremely grateful I am for the Charles Center, the Class of 1943 fund, the Mason School of Business, and everyone who has supported me during this summer. From my bosses at the World Bank and Development Gateway, to my professors and classmates, to the humanitarian and business professionals I have met along the way…thank you, THANK YOU. Thank you for giving me encouragement, support, and confidence. Most of all, thank you to the Filipino people for inspiring me with your courage and strength. My faith and passion in this work has only been affirmed and strengthened in my time with all of you. I will continue to work diligently on this project until I see it through. I have learned and grown so much these past months and I am ready to fearlessly take on the great challenge before me.

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Pat Austria

Pat Austria is an undergraduate student at the Mason School of Business.

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