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The Philippines leverages data analytics to reduce disaster risks

Bukidnon State University (BukSU) partnered with the Peace Corps for the first time, empowering the school to train their staff on data analytics and thereby reduce local disaster risks.

A middle-aged man smiles in a blue buttondown shirt.
Brian credits Peace Corps service for helping him reach his professional goals.

Unexpected floods, landslides, and other environmental hazards commonly halt life in Malaybalay City, including interrupting classes at Bukidnon State University (BukSU). Because the university sits at the base of the Kitanglad Mountain Range, the facility is susceptible to flooding from large quantities of runoff water.

Dr. Derren Gaylo, Head of the Research Center for Educational Analytics at BukSU, shared how natural disasters impact the local community: “The city is prone to hydrometeorological hazards that leave the community, including its most vulnerable sectors, at risk. We are therefore seeking initiatives to help lessen loss of life and destruction of property.”

In 2022, BukSU launched its fourth research center – the Center for Educational Analytics – with the goal of leveraging data to prevent and plan for climate change-related events. To do that, the staff wanted to build their capacity in analytic tools. In 2023, Dr. Gaylo expressed interest in participating in Peace Corps’ Virtual Service Pilot (VSP). He developed a 24-week-long virtual engagement to collaborate online with an American professional and grow his staff’s technical expertise.

The short-term project caught the eye of Brian Gillikin, who works as a data scientist at IBM. Brian had participated in VSP twice before. His first time was in the fall of 2022 when he supported information technology (IT) training at a state university in the Philippines. He participated again in early 2023 with St. Lucia’s Department of Education where he co-designed a database to replace the often problematic, paper-based student record system.

Brian knew he wanted to return to the Philippines virtually, stating that his previous counterparts’ enthusiasm for sharing their culture and building a relationship with him was “absolutely delightful.” So, when he read that BukSU wanted online data support and would not receive an in-person Volunteer due to the area’s natural hazards and security concerns, Brian answered the call to serve yet again.

There hasn't been any Peace Corps presence in that part of the Philippines since the early ‘90s. Virtual Service can expand [the agency’s support] into little pockets of the world where Volunteers (for safety and security reasons) don’t go,” said Brian.

A male hiker stands in front of a snow-covered mountain
A snapshot of Brian during his in-person service in Georgia.

Having served as an Education Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia from 2009 to 2011, Brian knows that intercultural collaborations lead to new ideas, approaches, and even interests. Case in point: the Georgian language skills Brian acquired during his in-person service led to a post-Peace Corps job in Georgia where he facilitated data and software trainings, sparking his decade-long career and passion.

Despite working full time today, Brian found it relatively easy to donate an average of 6 hours each week to support his virtual counterparts. The significant time difference between his current home in D.C. and the Philippines proved advantageous as meetings could be conducted after his day job.

The engagement was very practical. [Dr. Gaylo and I] didn’t have to make up real-world cases for the trainings. Data told us where it floods, where landslides occur, where there's pastureland. That information will then used by the university to conduct research to help the city mitigate disasters,” explained Brian.

After Dr. Gaylo and Brian used the technical inputs to facilitate five training sessions for BukSU staff, the university coordinated with the local government’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) office to make educated, data-driven decisions to better prepare the community for natural disasters. The DRRM staff were invited to the training sessions to share the current situation in the locality and provide insights on how research can help solve the encountered problems.

The engagement concluded this past December, but Brian plans to keep his eye on Peace Corps' virtual engagements for more opportunities to share his skills. “This is a thing I can do. I feel like I'm doing something meaningful, said Brian.

In addition to enjoying the flexible way to share his expertise with communities abroad, Brian shared that Peace Corps service – both in-person and virtual – continues to support his career in exciting and unexpected ways, including his 2024 plans to live in India on a U.S. Fulbright grant. “I use the credentials from my virtual engagements to make my resume stronger for work in international settings,” stated Brian. “Thanks to the Peace Corps, I [previously] received two Coverdell Fellowships: one in public policy management and one in information technology.”

A Filipino man stands smiling in a red, white, and yellow striped top
Dr. Gaylo enjoyed collaborating online through VSP.

Dr. Gaylo said his team equally benefited from the virtual engagement and is eager to collaborate with the Peace Corps again.

“The commitment and selflessness exhibited by Brian, our Virtual Service Pilot Participant, not only enriched our educational context but it also fostered cross-cultural understanding. The exchange of ideas and experiences has undoubtedly broadened our research perspectives and built bridges that transcend borders and foster a sense of unity. The engagement has shaped the way we approach research and disaster risk reduction initiatives,” said Dr. Gaylo.

The Planning Section In-Charge at Malaybalay’s City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office went on to add: The training helped me become better at my job."

Are you interested in supporting climate change efforts in the Philippines? Peace Corps Philippines’ Response Program Coordinator, Milo Cruz, anticipates there will be more opportunities to serve both in person and online.

In fact, there are a dozen Response Volunteer positions related to climate change and disaster risk management currently available with a start date of September 2024. More virtual opportunities to support the Philippines will be posted this spring.