The rise of OCTA Research Group

Published April 4, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz

In 2019, they aimed to do public opinion research, but Covid came along and OCTA shifted to study the pandemic. Now it is a ‘go-to’ source source of info on Covid

The past two years have been challenging across all sectors of society, but there are also silver linings, such as the rise of non-government research groups that kept the public informed in the most difficult times.

One organization which has made various contributions to help Filipinos fight the pandemic was the OCTA Research Group that became the “go-to” source of information on Covid-19.

Established in 2019, OCTA is an independent and interdisciplinary policy and public opinion research organization, more known for their monitoring and analysis of the Covid situation in the Philippines.

The group was first composed of eight research fellows, thus the name OCTA.

Now, it has around 20 members, coming from a multidisciplinary background, including mathematics, microbiology, and infectious diseases, mostly from the University of the Philippines (UP) and the University of Santo Tomas (UST). 

OCTA aimed to become a polling group but found an opportunity to use their expertise to study the Covid pandemic as a form of public service.

OCTA’s fellows conduct independent monitoring of the country’s Covid-19 situation, using the data of the Department of Health as the basis for their projections and studies.

The group has been saying that what it is doing is part of its service to the nation and being one with the government, private sector, and the entire country in the collective efforts to fight the pandemic.

“We are part of the collective effort to fight Covid-19 in the country and that is important for us to emphasize that the challenge of dealing with Covid-19 is a collective effort with the private sector, people like us—independent scientists—citizens, communities, and government,” OCTA research president and UP political science professor Ranjit Rye said in a forum on Aug. 3, 2021.

“Our work, small as it may seem we feel, is a contribution to the collective fight against Covid-19. We want to contribute, as faculty members of our institutions, as part of our public service mandate we need to contribute. This is how we want to contribute, in an independent scientific organization, like OCTA,” he added.

But it was not all smooth sailing for OCTA, as some people questioned their projections and methodology.

In August 2021, a committee of the House of Representatives pressed for an investigation into OCTA’s “qualifications, research methodologies, partnerships, and composition” after a member of the Department of Health’s technical advisory group said the research group’s findings are “problematic.”

In an online forum during the same month, UP professor and OCTA fellow Guido David assured the public that the group’s projections are driven by data and not merely theories. 

At that time, OCTA called for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown due to surge in cases driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19. 

Rye, during the forum, attested to the importance of using projections to address the threat of Covid-19 surge.

“The point is not that we are correct. The point is, we now understand that we have information, we need to work together to deal with the threat of the surge and then again, it is not OCTA being correct, it is about science,” Rye said.

In the House committee hearing on Sept. 7, 2021, David said: “Our projections and our models have 100 percent surge detection accuracy. The important matter is our models predicted a surge, and it happened. We only projected a surge three times, and it all happened.”

Rye, in a television interview, said that OCTA is aware of its accountability to the scientific community. “That’s why we ensure that we present our models to our community. If there’s criticism and weakness, we try to improve. We are constantly trying to go to venues to further improve the way we are doing research,” he said.

Amid the challenges, OCTA fellows maintained an effective work in establishing the OCTA Research Group as one of the major source of pandemic information and assessment in the country.

“I’d like to believe na nakakatulong kami (that we are of help to other people). We’ve heard it from so many individuals, citizens. Because of what we are doing, we also have people who disagree with us. That’s important, people who vehemently disagree with us, but that’s the way it is when you are doing public service,” Rye said.

“OCTA has been helping inform the public through its data [because we believe that] an informed public is an empowered public. I think we contributed, to some degree, in my belief, strongly, that we have contributed to saving lives and livelihood,” he added.

OCTA hopes they could also conduct collaborations with the government, other non-government organizations, and private sector to help in the country’s pandemic response.

OCTA not only provided vital and timely information on Covid-19, but also provided inspiration, support, and motivation during these challenging times.