House lawmakers seek probe on OCTA qualifications amid updates on COVID-19

RG Cruz and Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 04 2021 03:58 PM | Updated as of Aug 04 2021 09:03 PM

MANILA (UPDATE) — Independent research group OCTA will be summoned to the House of Representatives to face lawmakers who want to look into their qualifications and background.

Deputy Speakers Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy and Rep. Sharon Garin, Deputy Minority Leader Stella Luz Quimbo, and Rep. Jesus “Bong” Suntay on Tuesday filed House Resolution No. 2075, urging the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability to conduct a probe in aid of legislation. 

The lawmakers want to ascertain the credentials and background of the research unit, focusing on their “qualifications, research methodologies, partnerships, and composition.”

Of the said House lawmakers, only Quimbo is a known member of the academe. 

OCTA research has been providing updates on the country's pandemic situation, often with reports and analysis provided daily or weekly. OCTA fellow Ranjit Rye said the group is composed of 20 experts and analysts. 

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The lawmakers said that since the pandemic began last year, a number of media outlets have cited warnings published by OCTA, with the latest one pushing for a “circuit breaker," or hard lockdown this month.

“There is a public health and public policy need to ensure the safety and security of the population during this pandemic, and that information being distributed is correct and are not irresponsibly and erroneously published,” they pointed out in the resolution.

In an interview on ANC, Suntay said the congressional probe only wanted "clarity" regarding the group's credentials, and it does not seek to discredit them. 

The lawmakers, Suntay pointed out, will also invite the Department of Health (DOH) during the hearings to let them compare notes and consolidate it. This is to see their methodology and to prevent "statements [that] confuse the people."

"We are not saying that we don't trust the OCTA Research group. The only thing we want is clarity and uniformity on the methodology being used," he explained. 

"The people are already scared, we don't have to scare them more. We don't want to confuse them more so that they can be prepared," he added, noting there was panic buying in groceries due to the looming tougher lockdowns. 

Metro Manila is set to revert to the enhanced community quarantine on Friday until Aug. 20, to stem the rising COVID-19 infections likely driven by the COVID-19 Delta variant.

On July 22, OCTA said the capital region is seeing "early stages" of a virus surge due to the more transmissible strain, and urged authorities to place the region under a stricter quarantine level. 

OCTA WELCOMES PROBE 

Rye, an assistant professor at UP's Department of Political Science, 
welcomed the lawmakers' call for probe, and said they would be "happy to present to Congress." 

He said their analyses are not alarmist, noting that their data comes from the health department.

"What we have been doing is provide analysis of DOH data to inform the public and government. I think our data and the results of our analysis speak for itself, as far as the surge [in] National Capital Region is concerned," he explained.

"If it would mean clarity and it would inform our congressmen the intent of our public service initiative, it is okay."

In its website, OCTA describes itself as a “polling, research, and consultation firm” that provides “comprehensive, holistic, accurate, rigorous, and insightful data analysis to help our clients in government, the private sector and the NGO community."

OCTA'S FINANCING QUESTIONED

Herrera-Dy, meanwhile, alleged that some P15 million in Bayanihan 2 funds may have ended up in OCTA Research Group.

Speaking to reporters, Herrera said the Bayanihan 2 funds is one of the reasons why she and 4 other lawmakers sought a congressional investigation on the research group. 

Republic Act No. 11494 or the Bayanihan 2 law allocated P15 million for the establishment of a computational research laboratory in the University of the Philippines-Diliman Institute of Mathematics to process big data analysis for COVID-19 and other pandemic-related research.

"Mayroon akong naririnig na sila yata ang nabigyan namin ng P15 million from Bayanihan 2. But I’m not sure. That is why we also want to clarify that because kung nanggaling sa gobyerno ang pondo nila, then all the more kailangan natin kilatisin yung organisasyon," she said. 

(I heard that we were able to give them P15 million from Bayanihan 2... If their funds come from the government, then all the more that we need to scrutinize them.)

"Kasi, 'di naka-specify sa Bayanihan 2 kung sino yung binigyan namin ng P15 million. And there are talks, nagsasabi, sa OCTA napunta. And we would like to confirm that also.”

(The Bayanihan 2 did not specify what organization received the funding. Some say it went to OCTA.)

Aside from COVID 19 data analysis, OCTA has also been releasing its own pre-election surveys.

The lawmaker also questioned this, as well as their methodology.

“Ganun ba kalawak yung expertise nila? Ganun ba karami yung nasa likod nila? Kasi di naman mura ang survey,” said Herrera-Dy.

(Is their expertise that wide? And do they have enough people behind the group? A survey is expensive.)

“You have to get to know ano ba ang methodology nila, saka gaano ba karami. Kasi kung napaka-wide na ng spectrum na hina-handle ninyo, ano ba talaga ang expertise ng inyong company or ng inyong NGO?"

UP AND OCTA 

The lawmakers noted that past infographics and press releases across media outlets and social media platforms refer to the “University of the Philippines-OCTA” group (UP-OCTA) or the “UP-OCTA Research Team” in predicting surges of COVID-19 cases. 

It also cited that OCTA Research's Rye has been quoted to refer to the group as the “UP-OCTA Research Team.”

On March 19 this year, Rye appealed to reporters who are part of a small group chat with the research unit to "please refer to us simply as OCTA and not UP OCTA." 

The House lawmakers underscored the need to “validate the connection between OCTA Research and the University of the Philippines System, as the former publicized a partnership which the latter seemingly denied.”

UP-Diliman Associate Professor Peter Cayton, they noted, also reported that there is no office within the campus named OCTA and that it does “not exist in UP’s organizational structure." 

A quick internet search will also reveal that UP somehow removed any reference of the group in its website. 

UP-OCTA team
UP-OCTA team

A note from July 23 last year read: "The UP-OCTA team is an independent and interdisciplinary research group composed primarily of UP faculty members and alumni." 

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