Photos: Alvin Mendoza
Video: Jay Cedric Bustamante
Words: Lou Albano
Numbers have always intrigued Wilson Chua, a big data analyst hailing from Dagupan, Pangasinan and currently residing in Singapore. An accountant by training, he crunches numbers for a living, practically eats them for breakfast, and scans through rows and rows of excel files like a madman.
About 30 years ago, just when computer science was beginning to take off, Wilson stumbled upon the idea of big data. And then he swiftly fell in love. He came across the story of John Snow, the English physician who solved the cholera outbreak in London in 1854, which fascinated him with the idea even further. “You can say he’s one of the first to use data analysis to come out with insight,” he says.
In 1850s-London, everybody thought cholera was airborne. Nobody had any inkling, not one entertained the possibility that the sickness was spread through water. “And so what John Snow did was, he went door to door and made a survey. He plotted the survey scores and out came a cluster that centered around Broad Street in the Soho District of London.
“In the middle of Broad Street was a water pump. Some of you already know the story, but to summarize it even further, he took the lever of the water pump so nobody could extract water from that anymore. The next day,” he pauses for effect, “no cholera.”
The story had stuck with him ever since, but never did he think he could do something similar. For Wilson, it was just amazing how making sense of numbers saved lives.
A litany of data
In 2015 the province of Pangasinan, from where Wilson hails, struggled with rising cases of dengue fever. There were enough dengue infections in the province—2,940 cases were reported in the first nine months of 2015 alone—for it to be considered an epidemic, had Pangasinan chosen to declare it.
Wilson sat comfortably away in Singapore while all this was happening. But when two of his employees caught the bug—he had business interests in Dagupan—the dengue outbreak suddenly became a personal concern. It became his problem to solve.
“I don’t know if Pangasinan had the highest number of dengue cases in the Philippines,” he begins, “but it was my home province so my interests lay there,” he says. He learned from the initial data released by the government that Dagupan had the highest incident of all of Pangasinan. Wilson, remembering John Snow, wanted to dig deeper.
Using his credentials as a technology writer for Manila Bulletin, he wrote the Philippine Integrated Diseases Surveillance and Response team (PIDSR) of the Department of Health, requesting for three years worth of data on Pangasinan.
The DOH acquiesced and sent him back a litany of data on an Excel sheet: 81,000 rows of numbers or around 27,000 rows of data per year. It’s an intimidating number but one “that can fit in a hard disk,” Wilson says.
He then set out to work. Using tools that converted massive data into understandable patterns—graphs, charts, the like—he looked for two things: When dengue infections spiked and where those spikes happened.
“We first determined that dengue was highly related to the rainy season. It struck Pangasinan between August and November,” Wilson narrates. “And then we drilled down the data to uncover the locations, which specific barangays were hardest hit.”
The Bonuan district of the city of Dagupan, which covers the barangays of Bonuan Gueset, Bonuan Boquig, and Bonuan Binloc, accounted for a whopping 29.55 percent—a third of all the cases in Dagupan for the year 2015.
The charts showed that among the 30 barangays, Bonuan Gueset was number 1 in all three years. “It means to me that Bonuan Gueset was the ground zero, the focus of infection.”
But here’s the cool thing: After running the data on analytics, Wilson learned that the PIDS sent more than they had hoped for. They also included the age of those affected. According to the data, dengue in Bonuan was prevalent among school children aged 5-15 years old.
“Now given the background of Aedes aegypti, the dengue-carrying mosquito—they bite after sunrise and a few hours before sunset. So it’s easily to can surmise that the kids were bitten while in school.”
It excited him so much he fired up Google Maps and switched it to satellite image. Starting with Barangay Bonuan Boquig, he looked for places that had schools that had stagnant pools of water nearby. “Lo and behold, we found it,” he says.
Sitting smack in the middle of Lomboy Elementary School and Bonuan Boquig National High School were large pools of stagnant water.
Like hitting jackpot, Wilson quickly posted his findings on Facebook, hoping someone would take up the information and make something out of it. Two people hit him up immediately: Professor Nicanor Melecio, the project director of the e-Smart Operation Center of Dagupan City Government, and Wesley Rosario, director at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, a fellow Dagupeño.
A social network
Unbeknownst to Wilson, back in Dagupan, the good professor had been busy, conducting studies on his own. The e-Smart Center, tasked with crisis, flooding, disaster-type of situation, had been looking into the district’s topography vis-a-vis rainfall in Bonuan district. “We wanted to detect the catch basins of the rainfall,” he says, “the elevation of the area, the landscape. Basically, we wanted to know the deeper areas where rainfall could possibly stagnate.”
Like teenage boys, the two excitedly messaged each other on Facebook. “Professor Nick had lieder maps of Dagupan, and when he showed me those, it confirmed that these areas, where we see the stagnant water, during rainfall, are those very areas that would accumulate rainfall without exit points,” Wilson says. With no sewage system, the water just sat there and accumulated.
With Wilson still operating remotely in Singapore, Professor Melecio took it upon himself to do the necessary fieldwork. He went to the sites, scooped up water from the stagnant pools, and confirmed they were infested with kiti-kiti or wriggling mosquito larvae.
Professor Melecio quickly coordinated with Bonuan Boquig Barangay Captain Joseph Maramba to involve the local government of Bonuan Boquig on their plan to conduct vector control measures.
A one-two punch
Back in Singapore, Wilson found inspiration from the Tiger City’s solution to its own mosquito problem. “They used mosquito dunks that contained BTI, the bacteria that infects mosquitoes and kills its eggs,” he says.
He used his own money to buy a few of those dunks, imported them to Dagupan, and on Oct. 6, had his team scatter them around the stagnant pools of Bonuan Boquig. The solution was great, dream-like even, except it had a validity period. Beyond 30 days, the bacteria is useless.
Before he even had a chance to even worry about the solution’s sustainability, BFAR director Wesley Rosario pinged him on Facebook saying the department had 500 mosquito fish for disposal. “Would we want to send somebody to his office, get the fish, and release them into the pools?”
The Gambezi earned its nickname because it eats, among other things, mosquito larvae. In Wilson’s and Wesley’s mind, the mosquito fish can easily make a home out of the stagnant pools and feast on the very many eggs present. When the dry season comes, the fish will be left to die. Except, here’s the catch: mosquito fish is edible.
“The mosquito fish solution was met with a few detractors,” Wilson admits. “There are those who say every time you introduce a new species, it might become invasive. But it’s not really new as it is already endemic to the Philippines. Besides we are releasing them in a landlocked area, so wala namang ibang ma-a-apektuhan.”
The critics, however, were silenced quickly. Four days after deploying the fish, the mosquito larvae were either eaten or dead. Twenty days into the experiment, with the one-two punch of the dunks and the fish, Barangay Boquig reported no new infections of dengue.
“You know, we were really only expecting the infections to drop 50 percent,” Wilson says, rather pleased. More than 30 days into the study and Barangay Bonuan Boquig still has no reports of new cases. “We’re floored,” he added.
At the moment, nearby barangays are already replicating what Wilson, Professor Melecio, and Wesley Rosario have done with Bonuan Boquig. Michelle Lioanag of the non-profit Inner Wheel Club of Dagupan has already taken up the cause to do the same for Bonuan Gueset, the ground zero for dengue in Dagupan.
According to Wilson, what they did in Bonuan Boquig is just a proof of concept, a cheap demonstration of what big data can do. “It was so easy to do,” he said. “Everything went smoothly,” adding all it needed was cooperative and open-minded community leaders who had nothing more than sincere public service in their agenda.
“You know, big data is multi-domain and multi-functional. We can use it for a lot of industries, like traffic for example. I was talking with the country manager of Waze…” he fires off rapidly, excited at what else his big data can solve next.