04 July 2009

Bridging the gap between community information needs and student research: A local government perspective

Remarks during the forum on Community Research Initiative:“Bridging the Gap between Community Information Needs and Student Researches” held at Avenue Plaza Hotel yesterday, June 3, 2009.

MY TASK this afternoon is to share my thoughts on how we can bridge research and the need for information.

Allow me to approach this from the perspective of a city official in charge of planning (who necessarily must view things from the confines of Naga City) and as program officer of the newly established Naga City Governance Institute (NCGI), whose advocacies encompass regional issues and consequently require a regional perspective.

In covering the topic, I will share with you a useful conceptual framework that, to my mind, captures the challenge we are facing in community research; examples of data gaps that we contend with in government; and my personal thoughts as to why we should move this effort forward.

Conceptual Framework
To situate our discussion, let me start with the so-called Data Triangle, which essentially captures the kinds of information that we at the city government and the NCGI are concerned about. According to the ADB Cities Data Book, to which I contributed the profile on Naga City:

At the bottom level of the data triangle are raw data or information. These data are usually assembled into statistics, which often take the form of tables or other partially organized data frameworks. These tables are not generally of much value in their own right for policy, since a majority of people cannot read large tables or perceive the importance of the results; and they require further interpretation and analysis.

The next step of organization is indicators, which are usually single numbers, mostly ratios, such as the unemployment rate of the economic growth rate, which permit comparisons over time and space and have normative and policy implications. Finally, at the top level of data organization are indexes, which are the combination of indicators designed to measure the overall health or progress of the object of study. The consumer price index (CPI). gross domestic product (GDP) and human development index (HDI) are all well-known indexes.
The same book distinguishes between indicators and the three other types of information: "The main difference between indicators and other kinds of data is that the connection with policy is, or should be, explicit. Indicators are about the interface between policy and data."

Of what importance is this Data Triangle to our work at the city and NCGI and your own work as researchers?

I don't want to underestimate college-level research, but to my mind, the area where we can more effectively work together in bridging the gap between the supply and demand of information is to focus on generating the two lower tiers of information, namely data and statistics, for two reasons: one, quite simply, these are the biggest holes in our information wall, to borrow from that popular GMA afternoon show; and two, we (and I particularly refer to student researchers) may not at this point and level of education have the expertise and experience required to grapple with indices.

Thus, I am proposing that by concentrating on addressing the local gap on data and statistics, we will all be better off because we will be doing something we can be good at and one what offers the most productive potential use to the local community of users.

Local, Regional Data Gaps
What are examples of the data/statistical gaps that we can address through a more responsive community-based research?

Allow me to share with you some, culled from my experience in assembling the Naga City indicators for the ADB Cities Data Book:

1. Population. Number of women-headed households, i.e. families where the father already passed away and the mother serves as household head.

2. Equity. Family income and expenditures by quintiles. What NSO has are income and expenditure survey results aggregated per province; data for towns and cities are not available. Consequently, it is difficult to definitively measure and track whether incomes and poverty incidence are rising or falling through time.

3. Health and education. On the surface, we have official data from the DepEd, but there are complications arising from the fact that public schools actually serve catchment areas that do not correspond to specific territorial/political jurisdictions. Which is why you find a significant number of children from neighboring towns – like Canaman, Magarao, Bombon and Calabanga to the north and Pili, Milaor, Gainza, Camaligan, Minalabac and San Fernando to the south-southwest enrolled in city public schools. This can overstate the real participation rate of school children in the city.

4. Productivity. City product per capita – or essentially the economic output of the local economy year in and year out. Even the ADB publication says this is usually not directly available despite its importance.

An important data that can help us generate this is the accurate picture on employment by sector, i.e. breaking down employment using the International Standard Industrial Classification of All Economic Activities (ISIC)
* Manufacturing, construction and utilities;
* Wholesale and retail, transport, personal services;
* Finance and business services;
* Education, health, government; and
* Agriculture, mining, defense.

5. New technology. Telephone traffic (the number of telephone calls per annum per person, broken down into local, international and mobile) and number of internet connections and their annual growth.

6. Land and floorspace. Rental rates, operating costs and other charges per month for prime commercial spaces, per square meter: these are especially important to investors.

7. Housing. Data on how housing is financed, especially the percentage of mortgages and those taken by women-headed households from such institutions as savings banks, commercial banks, government institutions, credit unions or cooperatives, trust or finance companies, and insurance companies or pension funds.

8. Physical and social environment. Energy usage per person, where you have to factor in all possible sources like petroleum (kerosene, aviation fuel, natural gas), coal, wood, electricity (hydro, wind, geothermal).

9. Transport. Mode of travel (private cars, train, bus or minibus, motorcycle; bicycle, including pedicab; walking, and others like boat or taxi). Percentage of car ownership. Traffic counts (pedestrian and automobile).

10. Governance. Perceptions as to livability and consumer satisfaction.

What else? Insofar as the NCGI is concerned, let me reiterate the example I shared during the launching of the institute last June 20 at the Crown Hotel, to wit:
At the same time, we will explore new perspectives on certain advocacies that come naturally and we often take for granted. For instance, federalism is now being dangled back as a sweetener to push Con-Ass and ChaCha, and there is danger that some of us may fall into that trap, But if you come to think of it, all arguments we have heard thus far in support of federalism are political arguments. I think it’s about time we explore other compelling arguments: for instance, we should explore the economics of federalism in the context of Bicol’s development.

Research should be able to tell us what the optimal conditions are – particularly financing and institutional arrangements – what will make federalism feasible. Otherwise, I am afraid we are running the risk of blindly rushing and pushing for an advocacy because of passionate reasons that run deeply in our veins as Bikolanos, instead of approaching the matter dispassionately.
Why We Should Bridge These Gaps
Let me now move to the last part of my talk, which deals with the reasons why we should move this initiative forward.

The answer, I believe, lies on why we are doing research in the first place – which is not just to earn a degree or confer these to our graduates, which by itself is a virtuous pursuit; or because there are opportunities in the environment and the market place, which should be taken advantage of lest we lose them forever. It is about our search for truth, or at the very least, a fuller understanding of the truth.

I want to mention this in the light of a lecture early this year at the Ateneo de Naga University, where Fr. Wilmer Tria took issue with the city administration in regard to its reputation as a good governance practitioner.

Now, let me say that I respect and even encourage researchers to think critically and cover all the bases in our search for the truth – after all, that is the most potent argument one can ever have against the claim that dissent is not being tolerated in the city.

For one, I fully agree with Fr. Tria when he said that good governance is merely a means and not an end in itself; that at the end of the day, the end-all and be-all to good governance, including the city’s claim to it, is human development. And this is where I part ways with him.

Because the state-of-the-art in research today shows that there are means of measuring the state of human development. I have already mentioned one – the HDI – a while ago, and the HDI has many other variants and flavors, depending on where on is coming from. We have the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its plethora of indicators, which have been agreed upon by the international community of nations, and one which the NCGI has embraced as its own framework for regional advocacy. In others words, we no longer have to reinvent the wheel so to speak if we really want to understand more fully how local communities – in the province of Camarines Sur, among Bikol provinces and among Philippine regions – compare with each other in terms of human development.

And this is one concrete way through which community-based research among the educational institutions of the city can choose to move this initiative forward. For instance, you can choose to focus on each one of the eight MDGs and find out how towns and cities in Camarines Sur, or even how the 26 barangays in my native town of Pili are faring, considering that we have more or less five years to go before 2015.

If you are from Canaman, for example, where the purest variant of the Bicol language is said to come from, you may want to track down and analyze the comparative participation and completion rates of its various public schools, find out the magnitude of casualties – the average number of Grade I pupils who eventually drop out and are unable to finish Grade VI – the reasons as to why the phenomenon is happening (which is not true to the local but also the national level), and more importantly what the DepEd District Office and the Local School Board are doing or are intending to do about it. This puts you in a good position to relate these indicators to policy actions that they can explore as a means of addressing the problem.

Then, the Bercasio Group, probably in partnership with the NCGI and the Metro Naga Development Council, can sponsor an event that will allow you to present your findings, conclusions and recommendations to the concerned stakeholders. (Which is precisely what we are planning to do in Naga, through NCGI, within the year.) If this happens, one can really say with a high degree of confidence that his or her research is helping move things forward.

The bottom line is: we should not be afraid of numbers because as real researchers, they are key towards our deeper and fuller understanding of the truth, and in unmasking untruths. As is often said: one cannot improve what he does not measure. And one cannot measure what does not understand.

Otherwise, without the numbers backing up your thesis and assertions, what you will have is nothing but an educated opinion, which is still an opinion from anywhere one looks at it.

And while anyone can have his own set of opinion, he is not entitled to have his own set of facts. As researchers, our work will help ensure that these facts, or numbers, are valid, reliable and verifiable.

Thank you very much.