In a country such as the Philippines, which is regularly hit by natural and human-induced disasters, the need for early warning systems is paramount. Access to such information ensures that vulnerable communities have the capacity for evidence-based and timely decision-making even before a crisis arises. To highlight the link between agriculture and nutrition, one of FAO’s key priorities is to strengthen and support information and early warning systems for food and nutrition security. Funded by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), FAO in cooperation with the National Nutrition Council (NNC) and the Barangay Nutrition Scholars (BNS) improved reliability of the existing electronic BNS tool to help communities improve food and nutrition security monitoring.
The Operation Timbang (OPT) Plus is an example of an existing information system at the barangay level, native Filipino term for a village, district or ward,
that provides data on the status of food utilization in a community. More specifically, it provides information on the level of food insecurity in a community and the prevalence of malnutrition among vulnerable young children.
The OPT Plus is the annual weight-and-height-taking activity conducted by the National Nutrition Council (NNC) through its network of Barangay Nutrition Scholars (BNS). The BNSs are volunteer health workers who serve at the frontline of nutrition service delivery nationwide. Since the 1970s, data from this annual activity has been collected from each barangay, usually within the first quarter of the year, and aggregated at the municipal, provincial and regional levels. Upon collection at the barangay and municipal levels, data from the OPT Plus is transmitted immediately to local chief executives and nutrition councils so that it can be used for planning and response.
Data collection method
A key step in data collection for OPT Plus is the determination of each child’s age in months, calculated manually by the BNS from the child’s birthdate and the date of the visit. After weight and height measurements are taken, the nutritional status is also determined manually – one child at a time - using reference tables based on the World Health Organization’s Child Growth Standards. Information from each child is then recorded on standard paper forms.
Given the large number of children who are included in the survey, the process is tedious, time consuming and susceptible to computational errors. Consequently, there have been criticisms on the overall quality of malnutrition prevalence rates derived from the OPT Plus.
In 2010, the National Nutrition Council developed a prototype of an Excel-based electronic tool, known as the ‘BNS Tool’ that aimed to address the difficulties in manual calculation, recording and reporting. However, the original version had some limitations. Despite this, FAO recognized the electronic tool’s potential to improve the efficiency of the OPT Plus process.
Improving OPT Plus
Through its UNICEF-funded Early Warning System for Food and Nutrition Security (EWS-FNS) project in the provinces of Capiz and Aklan, FAO saw an opportunity to field-test the electronic tool. Over a period of 18 months, the tool was tested and valuable feedback elicited from local partners as well as from the National Nutrition Council.
The electronic tool acquired a number of new features that automated calculations, nutritional classification and reporting functions. For example, thanks to the tool, it is now easy to prepare segregated lists of children who are severely malnourished, thereby facilitating their follow up care.
Now dubbed as the e-OPT Plus tool, the electronic system has become an important component of FAO’s broader EWS-FNS project in other regions of the Philippines. To enhance data quality, the tool also includes a number of error-checking features, such as checks for double-counts and out-of-range values due to data entry errors. Perhaps the most appreciated feature among its current users is the tool’s ability to consolidate OPT Plus data at the municipal and provincial levels in a relatively short period of time. This makes reports much easier to prepare, and more timely and accurate. It now also includes pre-formatted and ready-to-print reports and formats for different users, designed to encourage greater use of data at the local level.
“Improving the reliability of the OPT will also boost its use for planning and decision-making. In the broader context, greater awareness and appreciation for these types of data, especially at the barangay level, will allow local governments to make early forecasts, plan accordingly, and provide timely interventions so that communities can improve their chances for better food and nutrition security” said FAO Food and Nutrition Security Monitoring Systems Specialist, Dr Celestino Habito, Jr.
Mainstreaming OPT Plus
To further mainstream the use of the e-OPT plus tool, FAO provided technical assistance to NNC in drafting a reader friendly manual that contains step-by-step guidance in using the tool. In recent months, more and more municipalities have started to use the e-OPT Tool. In Capiz and Aklan, for example, provincial health officials have started to disseminate the e-OPT tool province-wide. FAO has also been providing trainings to local government staff in preparation for next year’s OPT Plus survey. Hand-in-hand with NNC, FAO envisions to eventually see this tool adopted nationwide.