2010 elections automation: three takes from civil society

With the Senate and Congress of the same mind for 2010 elections’ automation, with the considerable prodding from the Commission on Elections, it seems there’s no stopping government to finally give flesh to the dream of fully automated elections.

It’s interesting to note that the majority of the Senate has faced an unrelenting opponent in the person of Senator Chiz Escudero. He said no to the proposed supplemental budget as he saw a ghost of the 1.3-billion-peso Mega Pacific scandal in that move.

But what’s much more interesting to note is the fact that three civil society networks have surprisingly taken different positions on the issue of 2010 polls automation.

Kaya Natin! A National Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership is for the automation as the COMELEC has pushed it. Its leaders believe that the planned automation will minimize fraud, cheating, and human error. It will also allow Filipino people to know the election results faster.

The Alternative Budget Initiative (ABI), led by the Social Watch Philippines, is against the automation not for its demerits but for the technicality of and politics behind the move. ABI finds irony in the fact that government is working on the supplemental budget for the automation when the budget for 2009 has yet to be signed by President Arroyo. ABI goes on to say, through the words of Rene Raya of the Action for Economic Reforms (AER): “President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has certified the budget on poll automation as ‘very urgent’, yet the loss of lives, loss of opportunities, more hunger and more poverty caused by the delay in the delivery of social services due to the late implementation of the 2009 budget should be most urgent.”

Transparentelections.org is as critical as ABI but more focused on the technology and software involved. It noted that the Senate approval will not lead to a bicameral process but instead to the Executive level to implement the approved budget. On the technology and software side, Transparentelections.org doubted the openness of the system to be developed (Precinct Count Optical Scan), which will be proprietary, thus, closed-source, much less vendor-driven.

As an alternative, the Open Election System (OES) is being promoted as it is built around open source model, meaning that its source code is open to public scrutiny and that public may have access to election results as it wishes. Moreover, OES is pushed not under a fully automated system, since the  organization sees it as combining manual voting and tallying and automated canvassing.

It is clear that the civil society has not come up with a common stand except perhaps that it is not actually against automation of elections. Unless all three organizations come together and get down to the brass tacks of the issue, at the end of the day, only Kaya Natin! will “win”.

Just my two cents’ worth, I find the stance of Kaya Natin! sounding naive. It’s as if automation under the current system not meeting the prerequisites will be a true success in the end. Moreover, I do empathize with ABI for its pro-poor stance. But I’m more inclined to support Transparentelections.org given my advocacy for free and open source software (FOSS). I’m for social justice and software justice and they are related.

Meeting my Asian tech siblings (Day -1 of Mekong ICT Camp)

It was a great pleasure to meet with tech siblings from various parts of Asia last night. It was already 12:30 am by my machine clock (which remains set to +8 timezone) but I didn’t feel any sign of enervation from my long day (I had waited over an hour at the long queue for the Suvarnabhumi Airport passport control and spent another hour walking here and there at the exit area to look for peeps assigned to fetch me).

Look who these tech siblings I met were: Klaikong, Bobby, Andy, Allen, Sam, and Wai. After taking dinner at 9pm, the gang met at the Santi Room in about half an hour. The only thing (but not necessarily the easy one) discussed was the schedule. Bobby started the ball rolling by proposing that the Mekong ICT Camp be hewed to the Asiasource camp setup: All tracks in the morning, all breakout sessions in the afternoon. (Images of Allen Gunn and Tactical Tech peeps came to mind.)

Colleagues were fastidious; I wasn’t. I’m sure they observed so. Honestly, I came to the camp solely for the Track 3: Computer Networking. I was particularly concerned on how that track (where there will be only 7 participants [out of 60 plus]) would turn out. My silent attitude was: “Just get it over with and let me proceed with developing my module on wired networking.”

Nevertheless, I was still pleased to meet with these techie guys (I feel sad that there were no techie gals) and beating brains out while peeling, biting, chewing and swallowing sweet-smelling Thai oranges.

Cyber Education Project: The best response to challenges in Philippine education?

There are two ways to take a critical look at the controversial Cyber Education Project (CEP) (See the slide below). One is the process by which it was crafted and peddled in public. The other is its feasibility in the Philippine context. This article attempts the second.

An ordinary folk surely asks: What is that thing called Cyber Education Project? I don’t have an easy answer but based on my copy of the electronic presentation prepared by the Department of Education (DepEd), which unfortunately does not give a one-liner definition of it, I define it as one that provides basic education to all areas in the country through a satellite technology that connects in real time all DepEd offices and public schools, which use hi-technology multimedia devices to facilitate learning process. (Caveat: This definition has to be checked against the expected reach of the project. See below.)

The project contextualizes itself within the challenges in education, namely, low academic performance of students, significant drop-outs, and big population of out-of-school youths and functionally-illiterate adults. Thirty-percent and 60% of children entering Grade 1 do not finish elementary and high school, respectively. Mentioned in the reasons for drop-outs were lack of pre-school preparation, disinterest in the lessons, poverty, malnutrition, and transportation problems.

The rationale cites the difficulty for the DepEd to service the 9.16 million functional illiterates and 12.24 million illiterate youths and adults with its insufficient resources (800 mobile teachers and 0.17% of the department’s budget used for the alternative learning system).

And here’s the proposed solution: Reach the illiterate youths and adults with the aid of electronic multi-media technology. Better yet, use a satellite technology that connects all schools in real time so that contents and processes are standardized. Thus, the CEP proposal, with China’s Tsinghua University as the major partner to lead in the turn-key setup. The Philippine government will rely on the university’s experience in satellite and long-distance education technologies.

The project targets to benefit not all of the public elementary and secondary schools, though, but only 37,794 or 90%. Only about 70% of the schools will be provided with satellite-based facilities. Likewise, if the slide presentation of DepEd is to be believed, only those “outside the 1st and 2nd class cities” will stand to benefit. I’m sure that this will invite backlash from the education personnel and Mayors of the excluded cities. It is not therefore true that the project will benefit all public schools.

The project also targets to reach at least 13 million students and 800 classes for out-of-school-youths.

To realize this project, a total of P26.48 billion is entailed over five years, with equipment and operating cost taking up the biggest share of the pie. To get the project rolling (for year 1), over P5 billion is required, to be sourced from USD100 million soft loan from the Chinese government plus Philippine government’s counterpart of P1.3 billion. DepEd boasts that the investment per pupil is P1.22 per day compared to P15 per hour spent in an Internet cafe. Over five years, the average cost per student per day is 64 centavos.

The projected impact of the CEP on public education consists of improved student performance, savings of up to P60.3 billion in DepEd operations, and new possibilities for the Philippine education sector.

While they are not averse to the role of ICT to supplement Philippine education, various civil society organizations have already raised their criticisms of the project. These focused on a) the unnecessarily high cost of investments, without really building on the existing or previous ICT projects, b) DepEd’s lack of capacity to handle the project, and c) the project’s apparent romance with ICT for its ability to replace face-to-face education activities. (I have with me the draft briefing paper but I don’t have the permission yet to publish it here.)

I agree 100% on the criticisms. I also want to build on some of their criticisms and add mine. Yes, government is wont to introducing a project as if it were novel and had no relation whatsoever to the related previous ones. The CEP has been packaged as though projects like “PCs for Public Schools”, e-skwela, and GILAS have failed. If indeed these projects have failed, then the more the government has no right to delve into this grandiose, waste-of-money undertaking.

Moreover, the CEP is deemed as though it is a stand-alone project. It doesn’t recognize the roles that other stakeholders should play, like LGUs that should ensure sturdier school buildings and stable supply of electricity in far-flung areas and NGOs that could assist mobile teachers in reaching out to out-of-school adults and youths.

The DepEd lacks more plausible ways of convincing people about the project’s cost of investment. Surely, the claim that tens of billions of pesos will be saved in the deparment’s operations sounds like the savings could be used for other noble purposes. But comparing the cost per pupil from the hourly rental fee of Internet cafes is purely ridiculous. Who in this earth has proposed to the government to subsidize students’ Internet cafe activities? And will the CEP’s studios provide the same serendipitous learning that Internet cafes are able accord their student customers?

The CEP claims to be the best solution in addressing the challenges of in Philippine education, which includes poverty, malnutrition, and transportation problems. But how? I wonder if it can really fill in these gaps. Note that the (additional) 800 classes intended for OSYs are set up right in the elementary schools, not in areas closer to the OSYs. So the project’s claim that it will “provide 12 video channels, wireless wide-area networking, local area networking and wireless internet all in one package to the remotest area of the country” is all but propaganda. Poor, mobile teachers, they’ll remain to fend for themselves.

Now, about the equipment. By estimate, a multimedia classroom will cost almost half a million pesos. That is really high considering that half that amount is sufficient enough. That would reduce the project’s cost by over P5 billion.

Clearly, Congress must hold an inquiry into the CEP. It must give it the same importance it has given to the NBN/ZTE deal. Besides, the CEP and NBN/ZTE are closely linked to each other.

Before the government is allowed to implement this kind of huge project, it must:

  1. Give a full accounting of its ICT projects, including their impact.
  2. Have clear guidelines on how the project will be implemented, including procurement of equipment and the software applications that will be used. The guidelines must be clear about open standards, including the software source codes and document formats.
  3. Come up with a feasibility study, which should include DepEd’s capacity to implement the project as well as the project’s assumptions and risk analysis.

Unless the abovementioned are done, the CEP will be another scam in Philippine history. And no one will bear the brunt but the tax-paying Filipino citizens, rich or poor.

Can activists organize without mobile phones?

The Burmese military government’s recent move against democracy is ‘hi-tech’. It has cut off the phone services of activists and journalists. This developed as the government had feared that another wave of popular protest would unfold through mobile phones. Because of speed and cost efficiency, campaigners have resorted to mobile phones as indispensable tools to spread information aimed at social mobilizations.

Actually, the government showed “a bit of democracy” by announcing the warning first. And then right after that, the cutting off of the mobile services. Of course, members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were not exempt from the measure. Even their office’s landline phone was disconnected.

I can’t imagine myself living in Burma when my mobile phone would suffer that fate. It’s like having an accident in the middle of the road without any way to call for emergency. Besides, a mobile phone has been a work gadget, without which I would deliver practically nothing.

Catching up with the digital age, activists consider mobile phones as extensions of their hearts and minds. They are their last resort in tough times, when it becomes impossible for them to reach out to their constituencies. But digital age threatened by the ghost of feudalism has to bear with the “glitches” like what Burmese government did. I call it glitch because government will surely think of ways to retain the business of mobile phones while effectively curbing popular protests. (I wonder if Philippine government would do the same disservice to Filipino activists of all hues without any pressure from telcos which would incur loss from it.)

The problem facing the pro-democracy movement in Burma is that government has the monopoly over the telecommunications through Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications. And it will use all its military machine to stop others who’ll attempt to break it. In fact, in 2006, government successfully launched a crackdown on “illegal” importation and use of cheap China-made mobile phones. Even business people use Chinese mobile phones because of the better services.

Let me digress a bit. Can Filipino activists of the second millennium go on with their political lives without their mobile phones? Look, mobile phones do not only provide quick and cost-efficient delivery of information; they also provide a relative security for the info senders in terms of anonymity. I’m not saying that mobile communications are the only way. Mobile phones are tools and they must be seen as only complementing “offline” tasks of activists.

But I’m interested to know whether new-generation activists can really dispense with their mobile phones. Can they instead use a landline, a fax machine? Can they use what they predecessors loved doing–spreading copies of a piece of onion-skin or palara paper folded many times to avoid attention  from the police or enemies because such paper bears incriminating information?

I cannot live without my mobile phone. And I think I will die (or I will kill) if I’m denied connection to the Internet for life.

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Personal productivity and the Internet

Time is gold, so goes the cliche. Everyone recognizes that but finds it hard to really manage time.

Eight-year-old Martin had a school assignment that instructed him to list at least five ways to spend time wisely. He sought the help of his parents. Of course, Mommy would not give it away. She evoked from him what he really thought about the topic. The first two ways came from him. And he could not think of anything else. So Mommy advised the third, which he readily accepted.

Problem was Mommy could not think of any more ways. Martin still needed two. So Dad was forced to think as well. Bubbles, bubbles. Eureka. I found them. Here’s the final list:

  1. Eat on time; eat first before playing.
  2. Do your homework before anything else, like playing.
  3. Do today what you can do instead of waiting for tomorrow.
  4. Have fun while learning. Play educational games.
  5. Go to bed early so you’ll have enough sleep. That way, it won’t be difficult to wake up in the morning for school.

I wonder if adults can in general adopt that list. I think they can, as both kids and adults do need to spend it wisely though in different contexts. Although it’s much more complicated for adults, the fact that there’s been a host of self-help books about time management since the 20th century. (Could it be that the intricacy is brought about by the books themselves? Cannot manage time? Buy this book. Still cannot manage time? Buy this book; it’s different. The cycle goes on.)

I think that adults need to manage time because they need to be productive and effectively manage “scarce” resources. (As far as information resources, the scarcity viewpoint no longer holds.)

Technologies are the culprit

I, for one, am a fan of time management books. In fact, I have in our book case books by Stephen Covey and David Allen. When I read Covey in 1993, I was transformed into an addict of filofax organized according to the principles and techniques of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I was really conscious about my roles from which I planned my activities.

But when Filofax technology went out of fashion in late 90s, I struggled to retain the Coveyian techniques with my Palm gadget. I could not really adopt them because the related software bore a price, which I could not afford. Until I practically lost hold of the system.

When I got my own laptop in 1999, I wanted to relearn the 7 Habits system using a software. I tried the demo version of the Franklin Planner’s system that was integrated with Microsoft Outlook. But when I was exposed to Linux in 2000, my attitude toward Microsoft products changed, the fact that I could not upgrade them using the same low-end laptop of mine.

I was Covey disciple no more.

Although, I essentially remained true to my roles consciousness. I’ve used my roles–Manager, Father, Husband, Networker, Friend, and Self–as my categories for my tasks and activities. In fact, I was able to develop a LAPP (Linux-Apache-PostgreSQL-PHP)-based computer program to help me manage my time. But I’m having a problem running it every time I’m hooked to the Internet on Smartbro. (Too technical to explain here.)

I was introduced to David Allen‘s framework only this year. I didn’t notice him before until I observed that folks have been mentioning jargons identified with him: GTD, the next actions, tickler file, to name a few. I was interested to know how different he was from Covey. So I bought a copy of his famous book “Getting Things Done”.

No, don’t call me Allen disciple yet. Because I’ve not yet followed all his inputs as to organizing “stuff”, which are important things that are in our head and before us that require “processing”. Although, I think that he’s got a point. That I need to clear my head of the things I need to accomplish in certain times. There must be tools and devices that help me handle these things, like a calendar, lists, in-basket, clips, etc.

Allen also leaves to the person all his creativity he can get so long as he’s understood the workflow diagram and got all the basic tools required.

I only am confused at this point as to how to make better combined use of my laptop, office desktop, and Palm PDA and the Internet. Perhaps, I need time to really think it out. (You now wonder that I’ve not managed time to think of time to think.)

Managing time and resources in web-space

Surprisingly, I presently don’t feel any guilt that I’m “mismanaging” my time (and corresponding resources) just because I’m following neither Covey nor Allen. Is it because of lack of work pressure? Nuh. Everyday, every hour, there is. Perhaps, it’s because of the following:

  1. I’m connected to the Internet either at home or in office. And even when I’m out of these places, I can rely on Internet cafes that have mushroomed in the cities. If all fails, I can rely on my mobile phone that allows me to connect to the Internet, through Smart Internet service. That way, I never miss out on important emails and updates.
  2. I got Gmail that allows to me organize my mails according to labels.
  3. I got Firefox and plug-ins that let me to catch up with and scoop news.
  4. I’m using 30boxes.com for my calendar and to-do lists, which are very easy to manage. It’s got many features that I’ve not yet learned.
  5. I’m using 43Things.com to manage my life goals.
  6. I got time to write down my thoughts and experiences, thanks to WordPress.com and Twitter.com.
  7. I got a mobile phone that has features for capturing moments, collecting rich contact data, taking down notes, time alarms, etc.
  8. I’m feeling well, physically and spiritually.

I think that the last item is the most important one. For how can one proceed with managing time when he’s not thinking well? Lastly, I think that there should not be strict rules to spend time wisely so long as one is conscious of his roles in living his life. One basic tool that one should have, whether hi-tech or low-tech, is a calendar with a reminder feature. If he ever wants to go beyond that system, he must acquire the skill of adapting current technologies to his needs.

Software Freedom Day Philippines, best event once again?

For two times in a row, I attended the Software Freedom Day celebration in Quezon City. Last year, it was held in UP Diliman, College of Engineering. This year, same area, but specifically at the Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI).

I felt guilty, though, that I came at around 4pm, two hours before the event would be concluded. When I came through the lobby, it almost felt that there was no event at all. A lady from StratPoint, one of the event’s sponsors, approached me and introduced herself. After my asking her where the event was being held, she pointed me to the “back”. She said that the registration area is located in there as well. So I went straight ahead. But I couldn’t see any “registration area”. The open space was a bit chaotic, with some people glued to the computers and others chatting with one another. I then decided to enter a conference room, without any idea what was being discussed inside. The topic was OS migration. Of course, it’s not a new concept to me. But I stayed inside until it was finished. The guy who spoke was from Q-Linux. I’m sure the audience–mostly college students or young hackers, I guess–learned a lot from him. I thought that I would learn something from the topic. Perhaps had I come when the topic started, I would have so.

After that talk, I proceeded to the bigger conference room where Drupal was to be discussed. Before that happened, Rick of CPU led a raffle game, giving out to winners Red Hat souvenir items (laptop bag, mug, and document bag) courtesy of Q-Linux. I was sure I didn’t have any chance to win just because I was not registered (sob).

The talk about Drupal (presented by Noel Colino) was interesting. Since I’m a fan of Joomla, I didn’t have any deep knowledge about Drupal. But at least, I now know a bit of history about it. I came to know that Dries Buytaert (Drupal exponent) was supposed to name it as Dorp, a Dutch term for village or community. However, when Dries tried to register the name for a web domain, he mistakenly typed ‘drop’ instead of dorp. Later, the name was changed to drupal, a Dutch term for “drop”.

I found the talk very familiar, realizing that Drupal and Joomla have similarities in terms of scripting language and terminologies. The advantage of the speaker was that he was not a hacker himself so he was able to explain stuff in a rather non-technical way.

On the personal side, I felt that I didn’t belong, because people I saw were generally younger than me and that I knew only a few of them. Had I not initiated to greet friends (including Jerome Gotangco and Francis Sarmiento), it would have felt like I was a ghost. I should understand that I came to the tail-end of the event, when the energies of people would invariably flag down and other friends and familiar faces would already be gone.

It’s indeed another frustration for me that PLUG was not made one of the organizers of the event. But that’s another story.

Indeed, for a community of software freedom lovers, or for any community, for that matter, personal relations matter a lot. It’s enough that two persons love the cause, they somehow need to have established closeness beyond that political love.

Let’s separate this personal rant from a point I’d really like to make. I think that the event is much more successful than the previous one. Messaging was better (with the streamers and posters mounted around). I’m sure that the organization of the event was much better in the morning if I would base that to the cute kit provided.

The event showed the same thing as last year: That things can be free (as in free speech and free beer). Yes, the kit and refreshments were free. (I guess the speakers likewise gave inputs gratis et amore.) Well, credit that to the event’s sponsors.

The SFD event this year must be commended as it was last year. As I said, I did not witness the entire event but based on my impressions in the afternoon, it should win once again as the best SFD event in the world.

Marikina City Hall: Transparent, hi-tech, but…

I’ve always been awestruck by the Marikina City Hall (MCH) since I set foot in it a few years ago. The main attraction is its big atrium, whose glazed roof filters light from the sun into the building’s large space. It greatly symbolizes transparency in the local government. And the see-through glass walls of all offices in the two floors drives home the point even further. If you want to easily monitor council meetings inside the hall, just go upstairs and see from outside the Council Room how your favorite councilor performs. You cannot eavesdrop, though.

I’m not in a position to say that the MCH is the best seat of local government in the Philippines (for the reason that I’ve not gotten inside in any more than a couple). But at the very least, the MCH will surely be among the best.

When I visited the place this afternoon–on instruction by my wife to settle our real property tax and secure a tax clearance, which are required for the individualization of lots in my neighborhood–the feeling grew deeper at the sight of one big change in it: Use of ICTs.

There are a couple of sleek machines that run the employee access control and attendance system, or the equivalent to the bundy clock system.

There is a big computer room (or is it?) in which IT employees do their stuff. I saw a lady that was producing a presentation on how one uses the Marikina City web portal.

A set of standing Internet-ready computers is available for students or visitors who may need to hook up while waiting inside the hall.

The Real Property Tax system, at least, is computerized. The counters are using a web-based application to retrieve and supply data based on transactions with the taxpayers.

I did not go upstairs so there sure were more stuff that I missed.

However, I have to admit that behind my big appreciation for the state of the art are my few reservations. You know me, right? I’m a FOSS guy, so I’m basing everything from that perspective.

The LGU must have spent tens of millions of pesos to acquire and maintain computer hardwares and softwares. In my estimate, there are at least 300 computers being used inside the hall. And I’m not speaking yet of other offices outside, like the Engineering and Health Centers. I’m very much sure that had MCF seen the light of FOSS, she would have opted not to buy Microsoft products in favor of open source equivalents, which require less investments. Look, the tax people are using their computers just to run web-based applications, for which Linux architecture fares much better than Windows.

Oh, not only web-based applications. I saw one tax person ‘crunching numbers’ with Microsoft Excel. I swear that OpenOffice Calc can be as cool, free of charge for software updates.

And for non-ICT stuff. I observed a couple of things that are surely a disgrace to the government. First, the payment receipt system is broken. When I paid for my real property tax, I was given an official receipt. But when I paid for documentary stamps, I was given a small piece of white paper with the Assessor signing on it. Twice I asked for an OR. Twice I was told that doc stamps had no OR. Is this allowed? Hmm.

Second, there is no drinking water for public consumption. Cheap rant, you may say. But to me that’s important. To think that Marikina City’s public water service (in partnership with Manila Water System) is much greater than the old cities in the NCR (which are mostly serviced by Maynilad.) I was not asking for a cup of free coffee or hot chocolate. I just needed a little amount of water to drench my dry throat at that moment after doing a couple of rounds among two counters and a xerox service outside the hall.