Pushing for an Open Data Law for Disaster Management

Atty. Lysander Castillo, Environment Fellow of the Stratbase ADRi and Secretary-General of the Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship (PBEST)

Recently, the Stratbase-ADR Institute hosted a multi-sectoral roundtable discussion on Dr. Mahar Lagmay’s Special Study, entitled: “Open Data Law for Climate Resiliency and Disaster Risk Reduction.”

To stress the importance of having open data law, Dr. Lagmay opened his presentation by recalling the circumstances of the 2006 landslide in Guinsaugon, Southern Leyte that resulted in a total of 1226 fatalities.

As he recounted, a teacher was still texting that she was with around 400 children in an elementary school buried after the landslide. What is horribly disturbing is that these people were not given a fighting chance to survive because the key to locating them got entangled in our bureaucratic processes. According to Dr. Lagmay, the only hope for the rescue team to get to the buried school was through GPS coordinates, which were then not readily available. As if no lives are at stake, hundreds at that, crying for help beneath the massive mud, the GPS coordinates were secured on the 7th day from request of data.

This sparked Dr. Lagmay’s initiative to advance the passage of a law that will ensure availability of all government data related to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction such as: weather data, aerial photos, satellite imagery, LiDar, exposure data, flood maps, landslide maps, storm surge hazard maps, fault, earthquake data, GPS, gas measurements, leveling measurement, volcano hazard maps, and other earthquake hazard maps.

Dr. Lagmay posited that the prospective open data law must mandate compliance to the key elements of Open Data, which are: “1) availability in digital format of data, downloadable via the Internet in bulk for ease of use; 2) amenability to intermixing with other datasets through interoperable format structure and machine-readability of digital files; 3) freedom to use, reuse and redistribute, even on commercial basis; and 4) a ‘no conditions’ rule on the use of Open Data, except for appropriate citation for due credit.”

Essentially, the argument for making government data open is said to be “based on the concept that goods and services that should be freely available to everyone as determined by society, must be made available as free data for ‘the public good.’” Dr. Lagmay stressed that, “While these services to collect and make available the data are not actually free, they are, nonetheless, funded with public money.”

After presenting the paper, the reactions made by government officials from relevant agencies were both encouraging and enlightening.

In particular, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Kris Ablan, of the Presidential Communications Operations Office, divulged that the government is trying to attain a goal of proactive disclosure and sharing information from the government to the public.

In navigating said direction, however, Asec. Ablan described the main challenges to be both cultural and technical.

For one, he observed the seeming reluctance of agencies to share data. It became apparent that reasons range from protecting intellectual property to apprehension over data being “misinterpreted” to the detriment of the general public.

For another, Asec. Ablan indicated the incapacity of government websites to hold significant amount of data, such as the Freedom of Information’s limited space of only 10mb per file for uploading.

Meanwhile, Director Maria Teresa Garcia, head of the National ICT Governance Service of the Department of Information and Communications Technology, mentioned their efforts to pass of a law on open data, through the E-Government Bill. Dir. Garcia also propounded the challenge of being able to effectively communicate the concept of open data to legislators to gain full understanding of the policy.

From a civil society perspective, Engr. Ludwig Federigan, executive director of the Young Environmental Forum, expressed full support for Dr. Lagmay’s policy proposition. He underscored the importance of an open data law by citing studies showing how the Philippines is highly ranked as a vulnerable country in terms of climate change and climate risk.

For Engr. Federigan, legislating a law on open data in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction strengthens the commitment of the country to the Paris Agreement.

To address the issue of whether there is a need for a law to attain the disaster management objectives, institutionalizing open data, to begin with, will give flesh to two State policies, to wit:

“It shall be the policy of the State to enjoin the participation of national and local governments, businesses, nongovernment organizations, local communities and the public to prevent and reduce the adverse impacts of climate change and, at the same time, maximize the benefits of climate change”; (Climate Change Act) and,

“Adopt a disaster risk reduction and management approach that is holistic, comprehensive, integrated, and proactive in lessening the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of disasters including climate change, and promote the involvement and participation of all sectors and all stakeholders concerned, at all levels, especially the local community”; (Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act).

Moreover, an open data law is crucial, at least in this regard, to be able to surmount the challenges concerning technical capacity, culture in the bureaucracy and, more importantly, accountability. Vast resources of the government must be mobilized to improve the digital infrastructure and instill openness in handling data. Lastly, only a law can provide penal sanctions for lost lives due to withholding or practically making unavailable government data.

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