By KERRY TINGA
The anxiety and stress we are experiencing under the enhanced community quarantine come largely from the fear of the unknown and the uncertain. To battle that fear, and to assist Filipinos in their daily lives under quarantine, a group of young Filipinos, most linked by their former high school teacher, has built an online platform that provides consolidated local data in real time about transport routes, opening and closing times of key establishments, checkpoint locations, donation centers, and the like.
“The lack of data makes people feel like they do not know what is going on. If you feel like you don’t even know what is going on outside of your own house you will have fear,” Weston Coleman, the lead developer of Dashboard Philippines, told me in a call the day after their web application went live. Coleman has spent most of his professional life coding, accustomed to not simply just dealing with data, but transforming data into a suitable form for analysis and informed decision-making. “Since there is no data, decisions are made out of fear. There will be a higher risk of exposure. There are concrete negative effects from lack of information: panic buying, masses of people clustered together. If we know more, we will all be able to deal with the situation better.”
The idea for Dashboard Philippines started as a conversation topic Coleman had the day after the quarantine of Metro Manila took effect. The question of where the checkpoints were kept coming up in his various group chats with family and friends. All over Metro Manila people scoured the Internet or asked each other what businesses were closed and what businesses were open, where they were allowed to go and how they would be able to get there.
“There’s a lot of announcements, but not a lot of information,” said JB Tiu, head of the data team at Dashboard Philippines. Tiu and Coleman attended high school together at Xavier. As their barkada’s group chat blew up with questions about the community quarantine they realized there was a need for an application that consolidated all those announcements, providing reliable and easy-to-understand information for the public so that their fellow Filipinos could make well-informed decisions and feel confident in these extraordinary times.
Dashboard Philippines started out with fewer than 10 coders, including Coleman. Over a couple of days, the data team web scraped, extracting data from online resources such as official government announcements, as well as media reports.
As the scope of the project grew, Coleman and Tiu reached out to their former teacher at Xavier, Martin Gomez, who came in as a consultant and posted about the application on Facebook. The post drew the attention of many of his former Xavier students who then expressed an interest in joining the project.
“There is even someone from the Batch of 2019. He calls me sir!” Coleman light-heartedly added. The team currently stands at around 40 individuals, and now spans roughly a decade of Xavier alumni, many linked by Gomez.
“I first encountered Dashboard Philippines via a post I saw on my Facebook feed from my former teacher and mentor,” said Zachary Will Sy, a computer science freshman at Purdue University in Indiana. He was one of the many new team members who heard about Dashboard Philippines from Gomez. After his school announced they were shifting to online classes, Sy returned home, albeit nervous that President Donald Trump could include the Philippines in the travel ban.
“Regardless of my decision to pursue my university overseas, my heart is always with my fellow Filipinos,” Sy said. “While technology will always allow me to connect with anyone online, being here enables me to feel the pulse of what’s happening here and really be one with the nation in this unprecedented and frightening times.”
Sy’s high school batchmate, and current fellow team member, Phillbert Tan pursued his studies abroad but was unable to return to the Philippines since his classes at the University of British Columbia carried on. “Working on a project for the Philippines feels like home even though I am currently in another country,” Tan told me. “One of the big reasons is that I have family back home and, if anything, I want to be able to find a way to support them and my fellow Filipinos in any way possible.”
Matthew Flores, a political science freshman at Ateneo, who also heard about the project through Gomez’s Facebook post, was eager to help. Initially hesitant because he considered himself “not much of a coder,” he understood that the vision encompassed so much more than a website, that it was truly s tool of empowerment for Filipinos.
“For someone like me who is continuously involved in community development and different relief operations, it was a simple choice. More than the boredom that comes with being in a privileged position in the middle of quarantine, the more difficult to overcome is this feeling of inaction,” Flores said. “Luckily, technology has made it possible for us to act without even leaving our seats. […] In many ways, the quarantine has closed many facets of my life, but in other ways, it has opened my eyes to new avenues for social involvement.”
One of the youngest members of Dashboard Philippines is senior high school student Adrian Serapio. Getting ready for the transition to college, Serapio was looking for ways to gain skills and challenge himself, as well as to help the community. Working on Dashboard Philippines, Serapio said, “I think it’s this process of slowly figuring things out and the collaborative energy that allows me to transcend the bounds of the quarantine and realize that, despite the dreadful situation, hope may not be completely lost. Programming challenges one to rethink what we think we are capable of, and I think that’s the most reassuring idea: that despite the situation, we are capable of always turning things around, overcoming the adversities thrown our way.”
Dashboard Philippines appeals to the public to be part of this initiative by adding information about key establishments, risk areas, transportation routes, and announcements related to the Covid-19 pandemic. By crowdsourcing as much data as they can, the application truly becomes for Filipinos, by Filipinos, together, wherever the Filipino may be.