While attending Geeks on a Beach last month, we also spent some time in Manila to visit a few labs and agencies, and had several discussions on the state of open-data in the Philippines.

Quick reminder: open-data is a recent trend for government, companies and institutions to release their datasets freely, so that users, developers, citizens or consumers can make use of it and create new services (check FixmyStreet for a “citizen 2.0” stint or FlyonTime for a more commercial approach).

The Philippines, a 100m population country we have been exploring, hosts quite a few very good applications of open-data, and they also have a strong support from the government side to do so. Here’s some of their creations, with the explanations of Ivory Ong, Outreach Lead of Open Data for the Department of Budget and Management of the government of the Philippines.

Key milestones of the open-data in the Philippines

The major milestone for the open-data in the Philippines was the official launch of data.gov.ph in January 16, 2014 after a 6-month development period. “We have had 500,000 page views as of June this year. We published 650 datasets at the time and had infographics (static data visualizations and interactive dashboards) already which was the unique selling point of our data portal. We were able to push out an additional 150 datasets by May 5, 2014″, says Ivory.

Open Data from DGPH on Vimeo.

The team also lead two government-organized hackathons: #KabantayNgBayan (on budget transparency) and Readysaster (on disaster preparedness) to build awareness on the use and benefits of open government data. Another milestone is having a Data Skills Training for civil society organizations, media, and government to build capacity with data scraping, cleaning, and visualizing.

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“Back in June, we likewise conducted our first Open Data training at a city level (Butuan City, Agusan del Norte) where local civil society organizations and local government units created offline visualizations from data disclosed by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) via the Full Disclosure Policy Portal, she adds.

Mapping the transports in Metro Manila with students embedded on all routes

While talking with Ivory and Levi Tan Ong, one of the co-founders of By Implication, a digital agency, I’ve heard about a quite funny story.

Just as in so many emerging markets, the transportation system is organically grown. Except for the MRT or subway systems where an official map helps to navigate the city, most routes by local bus (dubbed jeepneys in the Philippines, but one can think of Nairobi’s matutu as well) are unwritten. People just know them, stations are all over the road and nowhere at the same time.

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So the Department of Transport launched two initiatives to solve the issue. First, by putting students with GPS plotting software in all the jeepneys and local buses to map their actual routes, and then by releasing the data to have the communities of developers build an app for that. “From the little that I know, this was done because Department of Transport and Communication and its attached agencies have clashing statistics on the exact number of routes”, adds Ivory.

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Creative agency By Implication then won the Open Community Award at the Philippines Transit App Challenge, with Sakay.ph, an app which helps you to know which combination of transportation to use to go from A to B… quite convenient for the foreigner I am in the gigantic Metro Manila area! The app is recording about 50 000 requests per month since inception, and if there’s still some glitches on the data, it’s the first real online map and direction service for Manila.

Where is the Foreign Aid for disaster going? Open Reconstruction will tell

The same agency is also behind Open Reconstruction, an open-data platform which tracks where the aid money after typhoon Yolanda hit the archipelago in November 2013.

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It’s not just a storytelling of where funds are allocated, as Levi says: “Several towns asked for money to rebuild infrastructure and housing, but at that time, it was a long process in 5 steps at least to get funding, and all was in paper. So what we provide is a digitalisation of the aid process. First, by streamlining the process of applying for money and making all steps digital, traceable, and in a second step, by releasing this data to the public to increase transparency of the overall aid effort”.

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The connection between the agency’s work and the government open-data team seems to work on the topic of foreign aid. Ivory adds that “Context at the time was that there were a lot of news releases saying that humanitarian aid was coming in specifically for Yolanda. There were assumptions that government agencies might be getting funds yet are not using it for its intended purpose. When we finally launched the site and finished the scoping of the information-goods-cash flow [see infographic from the FAITH site below], we found out that only a small portion went to government and a vast majority went to multilateral agencies such as the UN and the Philippine Red Cross. Public demand died down because of it”.

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Open Reconstruction is the other half of what the open-data team wanted FAiTH data to be connected to: how the money was spent and if it was used for the intended purpose. It gives anyone, by bringing data to light, a chance to be a watchdog to hold government to account.

What’s next for open-data in the Philippines? Training, training, training

In just a few months, the open-data community did hit quite a few convincing milestones, both with government support and the involvement of the community of developers. There’s still a lot to do, as Ivory tells us, because as in any digitalisation, training, change management and making sure the administration and the public understand and accept this new policy is key.

“I guess this goes back to our first time to run the training to create offline data visualizations back in June. Local government unit representatives who were intimately familiar with local budget data had an easier time to create visualizations and explain it. After the crash course training for free online tools they can use, we went into a workshop proper where they select PDF files from the Full Disclosure Policy Portal (based on the city/municipality they lived in) and proceeded to discuss with their groupmates on how best to visualize it using colored paper and pentel pens.

These actors at a local level are important since they serve as potential information intermediaries who can communicate data into digestible stories that citizens can relate to based on their needs. Citizens who reside in remote or rural areas and are not familiar with government jargon/processes can be informed and empowered if intermediaries exist.

From our initial experience, I think I can propose 4 important must-have skills for intermediaries:

  • technological capacity (i.e. use of ICT) to clean/structure/visualize data
  • good understanding of government vocabulary and process (for data analysis and interpretation)
  • deep knowledge of local / community needs and priorities 
  • communication skills, particularly storytelling with data

The last skill is important because stories are easier to understand versus listening to technical jargon. Filipinos are very much into knowing hat’s what in the lives of family, friends, celebrities, and politicians. Stories trump statistics in this case so learning how to narrate what dataset/s mean can be more useful. If Open Data is to make an impact in the lives of citizens, it must be in a language that is relatable and understandable”