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Meet the Bike Scouts at the frontlines of Typhoon Odette’s relief efforts

“In every disaster for the past eight years, it has always been the same. The local Bike Scouts in the area are always the first to report.” Myles Delfin, founder of Bike Scouts, shares his community’s story.
Santiago Arnaiz
December 21, 2021

As early as four in the morning, Myles Delfin is already busy swiping between a dozen group chats, reading through the backlog of messages that have cropped up from his teams on the frontlines of Typhoon Odette’s destruction. 

Since making landfall last Thursday, the storm has affected nearly two million Filipinos with flooding, landslides, power outages, and displacement. Total damage to infrastructure is estimated at P225 million, with damage to agriculture estimated at P118 million. But as the nation would quickly discover, the immediate devastation wrought by Odette was only the beginning. In the days that followed, dwindling resources and no clear path forward presented by local and national government agencies meant communities have been left to fend for themselves. In some cases, both the storm’s impact and the resulting community isolation has led to death. Fifty-eight fatalities have been reported so far, nine of which have been confirmed by the NDRRMC. 

Delfin watches videos sent in from leveled towns, notes down vital supplies needed in isolated communities, and sends words of encouragement to his network. One of his latest messages reads: “To all the Bike Scouts in the field, working in teams or serving alone: strength and hope.”

Bike Scouts is a Filipino, SEC-registered non-profit social network that mobilizes a nationwide community of cycling clubs to serve as boots-on-the-ground for disaster relief efforts. They have been at the literal frontlines of nearly every major disaster in the Philippines since 2013—playing vital roles in responding to the recent Taal Volcano eruption, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the current efforts around Typhoon Odette. 

Delfin, Bike Scout’s founder, says the social network is the first of its kind in the Philippines, specifically designed for “doing good and helping others.” Partnered with local and international humanitarian and rescue organizations, Bike Scouts is slowly building its capacities, having just launched a new app and laying the foundation to expand into Malaysia in the near future.

The Typhoon Telegrams

In November 2013, a little over eight years ago, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded, Typhoon Yolanda, hit the Philippines, bringing with it massive city-leveling storm surges of up to 20 feet. Like many Filipinos, Delfin was moved to action.

“When Typhoon Yolanda happened, the first thing I noticed was that many of the people affected by the typhoon were getting some sort of access to the basic things they needed: medicine, shelter, food, and water,” Delfin said. “But the one thing that was never part of the conversation in disaster response, is that people have no way to communicate with their loved ones.”

At the time, Delfin was a cross-country cyclist and adventure racer, competing under Adidas Philippines. Most of his friends were competitive cyclists as well. So when Yolanda destroyed infrastructure across the central Philippine region of Eastern Visayas, shutting down communication channels and leaving countless communities inaccessible to most vehicles, he saw an opportunity to make a difference.

“People are stranded wherever they are when disaster strikes,” Delfin said. “Sometimes they’re just in the next town, but have no way to let their relatives know that they’re okay or that they need something. And so I thought that it would be a good idea if we could go there, use our bicycles, and work as volunteer bicycle messengers.”

The group called themselves Typhoon Telegrams, imagining that their work would largely consist of couriering letters to relatives, loved ones, and friends isolated by calamities. They very quickly realized, however, that being on the ground meant they were also in a position to gather vital disaster data for humanitarian groups to use in better strategizing their response efforts.

The one thing that was never part of the conversation in disaster response, is that people have no way to communicate with their loved ones.

Myles Delfin, Founder of Bike Scouts

Armed with their smartphones and situated across the frontlines of Yolanda’s aftermath, the group was documenting first-hand evidence of the situations on the ground. But, like the communities they were making contact with, they had no means to transmit what they were gathering.

“When we were in Tacloban, 24 to 48 hours after the storm, the real issue became the lack of power and internet or mobile data access,” Delfin said. “But what we did have was Rappler’s mobile van broadcasting through TV white space.”

Referring to the unused gaps between active channels on television, Delfin says Rappler helped them modify the TV white space signal they used for live broadcasts to allow the cyclists to upload all the footage and information they had gathered to the internet via satellite. Instantly, relief groups got a grassroots view of what was happening across Eastern Visayas and were mobilizing efforts accordingly. 

The group dropped their first moniker in lieu of one that better captured their new role as intel gathering troops at the frontlines of disaster: the Bike Scouts.

Picking up speed

Following the pivotal early role they played in shaping the nation’s response to the Yolanda crisis, Delfin’s team realized the only way the Bike Scouts could possibly make a lasting contribution to the nation was to begin growing the community in earnest.

“We literally went around the Philippines, to every school, every community organization,” Delfin said. “We targeted cycling clubs, which have a very natural sense of community. In Manila, we were able to go around all the major universities, giving talks about the climate crisis, bicycle mobility, and of course the Bike Scouts. That generated a lot of interest.”

Leveraging their partnership with Rappler, Delfin says the group had an easy time connecting with other organizations, collaborating with sports brands like Decathlon, a number of European embassies including those of Denmark and the Netherlands, and international organizations like the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The Bike Scouts quickly grew beyond its initial team of competitive cyclists, attracting a diverse membership of professionals inspired by the community’s mission. Through their efforts, they began to build a network that would help the group evolve into the 150,000-member, nationwide organization it is today.

This meant that as soon as a disaster occurred, a team of cyclists would be on call and ready for dispatch. When Taal Volcano erupted earlier this year, the Bike Scouts had members sending in live updates from Volcano Island itself, at the center of the Taal Lake. From the lakeshore, other scouts were shooting video and sending in pictures of the eruption. 

“We didn’t have any money in the beginning, so we couldn’t really afford to hire people formally,” Delfin said. “But just through the cycling community, people started joining, people who knew how to code, knew how to design. They gave whatever time that they could. Through those volunteer efforts, we slowly began to build everything—the networks, the partnerships, the systems, even down to the operations manuals. Everything, for some reason, just came together. The right people, the right partners, all came together to build this.”

To better support their now sprawling community, the Bike Scouts needed to begin formalizing their operation, beginning with the right technological infrastructure. To build that, they turned to one of their members, Ardee Yanto, CEO of ThingsPH. Working alongside the internet-of-things software development firm, Bike Scouts developed a mobile app for disaster and emergency reporting. 

While primarily used as a means for members to post real-time local updates around disaster events such as typhoons and floods, the app’s mapping software now also allows users to share daily updates on bicycle rides and recommendations for coffee shops along their routes.

“We did a test with another app before we launched our own and learned that Filipinos won't keep an emergency reporting app on their devices, assuming that they’ll never need it,” Delfin said. “So we designed ours to support an activity our members do almost everyday. And it just so happens to be a disaster reporting tool as well when needed.”

Sustainable growth

To date, Bike Scouts has received no outside funding from investors, growing organically through support from family, friends, and community members. But with the launch of their mobile app and the maintenance costs that come with it, Delfin says it’s high time they begin charting a more sustainable growth strategy for the community.

“I come from an advertising background, and worked with a lot of NGOs,” Delfin said. “I know for a fact that grants and donations are not a very sustainable model unless you do it at scale—and even then it’s very expensive.”

While Bike Scouts will continue to operate as a nonprofit, Delfin’s team is currently in the process of registering a separate for-profit venture, designed to sustain the larger community’s operations. 

Through this second entity, Bike Scouts will be offering workshops and strategic consultancy services to businesses looking to promote sustainable practices among their workforces and communities, through the adoption of bicycles.

Everything, for some reason, just came together. The right people, the right partners, all came together to build this.

Myles Delfin, Founder of Bike Scouts

In a recent engagement with the Makati Business Club, Bike Scouts facilitated paid workshops for businesses interested in learning about cycling mobility—helping them promote healthier and more sustainable means of transportation among their workforces and the communities they operate in. 

“We just finished one seven-session set of workshops with about 150 to 200 attendees,” Delfin said. “Upon graduation, these participants become Bike Scouts as well. In that way, we create a deeper kind of adoption of cycling mobility and sustainability in each of the companies we work with. Then we help them translate what they’ve learned internally into something that they can apply externally—advocating for bicycle lanes in their communities or donating bicycles to their LGUs, for example.”

Bike Scouts’ for-profit arm is expected to be formally registered before the end of January 2022. With a slate of partnerships already in place, initial proceeds from this venture will go towards establishing a dedicated development team for Bike Scout’s app, as well as onboarding an internal and external set of data privacy officers to help guide their communications operations.

The trail ahead

“The unique thing about the Bike Scouts is that we get a real-time view of what's happening on the ground, in the places that are affected by disasters,” Delfin said. “Long before a typhoon arrives, we’re already watching the waves, in places like Borongan, Sulangan, where storms from the Pacific usually make landfall. As long as there's an internet signal, we're able to receive photos and videos from the Bike Scouts in those very places that are being affected.” 

“So we know exactly what's happening and what's needed in the places where disasters strike,” he said. “In every disaster for the past eight years, it has always been the same,” Delfin said. “The local Bike Scouts in the area are the first to report.”

Having spent the last eight years mobilizing cycling teams across the country, Delfin says the group is finally ready to start growing beyond the Philippines. Working with tech media platform e27 and Singapore-based Sustainable Living Lab, Bike Scouts is already planning a small-scale pilot project in Singapore, in preparation for a full expansion into Malaysia before the end of 2022.

“At its core, the Bike Scouts network is really just an embodiment of the Filipino culture of bayanihan,” Delfin said. “We just created a platform to let people do what they naturally would in a community.”

“Very early on, we realized that when you bring together technology with the real sense of community people naturally have, and put that on a platform—good things happen,” he said. “I think in the past eight years, we’ve seen a lot of small-scale impact from the work we’ve done. But we’re hoping that with the app, we can grow that, and export our Filipino culture of bayanihan elsewhere, sending to the world something that can really make a difference.”

Those interested in supporting Bike Scouts, or joining their community can sign up for their app by visiting them on their website.

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