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Monday, July 27, 2009

Growth of IT in the Philippines: what's the catch?

Arroyo's State of the Nation Address (SONA) today boasted of significant growth in the IT sector in the country. Says Internet World Stats, the Philippines has seen Internet usage shoot up from two million in 2000, to 20, 650, 000 as of March this year. That certainly is a significant increase.

But is this really the right way to measure development in Information Technology? I'm not going to go into whether these numbers are valid, or what exactly caused this increase. I just think that we need to put the figure in the right perspective.

E-commerce in the Philippines

According to the statistics, a third of all urban Philippines already use the Internet. It looks like cost is no longer a barrier against it. In fact, the paper called "Yahoo Nielsen Internet Habits Study for the Philippines" from 2008 shows that about 85% of Filipino Internet users are from class D and E, while the rest from class A, B or C.

However, this doesn't actually always translate to development. Sure, more and more people are riding the Web wagon, but how much of this increase in traffic translate to income or actual gain for the average Filipino? Developed countries have long embraced the conveniences and benefits of transacting over the Internet. Many of our Southeast Asian neighbors also are beginning to see rise in usage of electronic means of trading. I would be willing to bet that quite a chunk of the figures today's SONA boasted about comes from youth activity gravitating towards social networking, communications between family and friends, and instant messaging (chat). That's not a bad thing.

But if we, both the government and the private sector, fail to turn a significant portion of that traffic into something that will bring measurable return, then we suffer a great loss of opportunity. The statistics only proves that we have capability in terms of infrastructure. We now need to provide the Filipino a reason to work, shop, trade and in general transact on the Web, and at the same time reason also to trust that moving towards Internet transactions would be secure and reliable.

Just look at the recent GSIS-IBM debacle. The government agency and international IT giant sue each other for an error that caused the agency's database(s) to crash and become unreliable. Now, what kind of message does this send to people? It blatantly and openly shouts that this kind of technology in the Philippines is simply not to be trusted. Users of the government-operated site reported that they weren't able to get to their records, and some even said that they did get access to records - only that the ones they got weren't theirs. I don't think this says much about security.

The government needs to show the Filipino that there's security and reliability in this technology, and thereby prove that it should lead to benefits for the people. And I'm not talking about downloadable forms, or records that can be viewed via the Internet from home. We need to provide something that will help ease the burden of government offices, at the same time make citizens' government dealings more efficient and convenient. The government needs to make available online all its services. This will then lead people to trust other sites in online transactions. The hope is to create a sense of security and sureness in the people to bring about better E-commerce usage.

Hopefully, the president's idea of creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology will contribute to the betterment of the Philippines IT sector - for real.

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