How do you use technology to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I head the Field Operations Office (FOO) of Mindanao Cluster 1 of the Department of Information and Communications Technology, which covers the Zamboanga Peninsula Region and the Island Provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

The FOOs manage the commissioning of policies and programs set by the central office; manage the strategic and critical government ICT infrastructure at the regional level; and assist in the formulation of national/regional policies, ICT program/project plans in collaboration with local ICT councils, Local Government Units and other stakeholders.

In the last one and half years of being the Director of Mindanao Cluster 1, I led the team in operationalising the provincial offices of the cluster, bringing the Department’s services closer to the people; and organising 8 ICT Councils in the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Sur, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi; the cities of Dipolog, Dapitan, Isabela, and the municipality of Lamitan.

The local ICT Councils are DICT’s partners in implementing ICT programs and projects in the countryside. In partnership with the ICT Councils and the Local Government Units, Mindanao Cluster 1 has reached about 3,000 participants in its Rural Impact Sourcing workshops, promoting online jobs in the countryside.

We are working closely with the Zamboanga ICT Council and the City Government of Zamboanga in promoting Zamboanga City as an ICT destination by conducting various ICT events. Zamboanga City was named as one of ten Emerging Next Wave Cities in 2016.

Since July 2016, I have also been designated in concurrent capacity as Project Manager of the Technology for Education, Employment, Entrepreneurs, and Economic Development (Tech4ED) Project. This project evolved from the Philippine Community eCenter Program, a national digital inclusion initiative establishing eCenters that provide critical e-government and ICT-enabled services in communities with minimal or no access to information and government services.

To date, there are already 850 Tech4ED Centers with 36,979 registered users. More than 500 of these Centers were established from July-December of 2016. A Tech4ED Center is a self-sustaining, shared facility providing access to ICT-enabled services and relevant content. It serves as a conduit for efficient delivery of government and other services, and a potent tool for the empowerment and participation of the unserved and underserved communities in development. We are establishing 50 more Tech4ED Centers in partnership with LGUs and other government agencies.

As part of the this initiative, we are providing digital skills to thousands of individuals coming from the special needs sectors, including ex-drug offenders, out of school youth and internally displaced people who were affected by the Zamboanga siege.

We are conducting ICT Courses that are available in Manila in Zamboanga, making the training more accessible and affordable to the participants from the region. Courses such as eGovernment Project Management, ICT Resource Acquisition, Information Systems Planning, Information Security and others have been conducted benefitting the government agencies and LGUs in the area;

The Tech4ED initiative was the government’s response to the World Summit on Information Society Plan of Action of which the Philippines was a signatory which states that “Governments and other stakeholders should establish multi-purpose community public access points, providing affordable or free-of- charge access for their citizens to the various communication resources, notably the internet.”

The Project was conferred as Winner for 2016 World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) Prizes – e-Employment category. WSIS Prizes is an international initiative head by the International Technology Union (ITU) where notable ICT for development initiatives in 300 countries are recognised.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2016?

I’ll cite two exciting things that I’ve worked on in 2016. First was the setting up of the Tech4ED Center inside the City Jail in Zamboanga City, the first of its kind in the country. This has been established through a partnership with the Rotary Club of Zamboanga City West and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

As of January 2017, 156 inmates are registered users of the various Tech4ED Services and Content. The Tech4ED Center in the City Jail is one of the 3 top-performing centers in Mindanao Cluster 1 since its Launch, and belonged to the 3 top performing centers in the whole country for 2016 under the National Government Agencies Category.

One inmate, who was a former school teacher, shared: “Education is not confined in the four- corner of a school classroom. This Tech4ED Center is a testimony that we can learn and apply what we learn even away from any school or university. We are thankful for this aid that the Government and other stakeholders are giving to help the inmates.” This former teacher, now inmate, was able to resume his online freelancing job and is now handling a few projects from his previous employer through the Tech4ED Center.

The Tech4ED Center in the said City Jail stands as a glimmer of hope to the inmates, giving them confidence to start anew outside the walls of the jail. In this little room in the City jail housing 2, 000 inmates, hearts are encouraged and dreams are renewed one click at a time.

Second, operationalising our Provincial Office in Tawi-Tawi on November 29, 2016. This province belongs to the extreme location points in the country, making it one of the furthermost islands from Manila. Through the DICT Provincial Office, we have already started to bring our services to the people of Tawi-Tawi, including Digital Literacy training for the underserved sectors of the society.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2017?

What I particularly look forward to is connecting the islands with technology. In my travels to the islands in my area of responsibility, connectivity is what the people demand. I’m glad that this is already being addressed with the Free WiFi Project of the DICT, which will provide free WiFi in public places in all the municipalities in the country. I’m eagerly waiting for the free WiFi to reach specifically the BaSulTa Islands. Connecting them will surely open new opportunities for better education, employment and increased income and productivity.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2016, what would it be?

Be an agent of change. Wherever you are, whatever your status in life is, you can bring positive change in your home, workplace, community and to the people around you. We have all been clamoring for change. Let it start from us.

Who is your hero and why?

I consider the Tech4ED Center Managers as heroes. They bring technology to the people, and are responsible for connecting the communities to the opportunities that ICT can provide particularly through the Tech4ED Centers.

Introducing technology in underserved areas is equated to introducing change, which makes it easier said than done. For this reason, this requires more than just technical skills for the manager. They also need to be equipped with patience and passion to bring the benefits of ICT to the countryside.

They have shown dedication and passion, working beyond office hours, in addition to their usual workloads. “I do believe in the power of technology to help transform lives, especially the disadvantaged sector of our society. Helping other people to improve their lives is giving me a feeling of fulfillment because I am able to empower them and give meaning to their existence,” said Dr. Mary Ann Cortado, the Tech4ED Center Manager of Mlang, North Cotabato Tech4ED Center which was conferred the Top Center in the Country for 2016 with most number of registered users. She is just one among many committed and passionate digital heroes. Many lives in the countryside have changed for the better because of them.

And finally, if you could recommend us one place to eat, where would it be?

Alavar Seafood Restaurant in Zamboanga City. It serves seafood, like the spanner crab or “Curacha”, an Indo-australian crab. This is served with a special Alavar sauce, a combination of coconut milk, ginger, chilli and other aromatics to enhance the flavor. It is a must-eat when one visits Zamboanga.