21 June 2006

TxtNaga takes a bow

LAST Saturday, I had the opportunity to present our latest 'baby' during the 2006 Mayoral Awards rites held in conjuction with Naga's 58th charter anniversary: the TxtNaga service.

("Our" refers to the Naga i-Governance Team, the multi-tasking City Hall unit in charge of developing ICT tools that will promote more meaningful engagement between ordinary city residents and the city government. Aside from me, it includes Reuel Oliver, Investment Board chief and team leader; Lawrence Nogra, SMS programmer; Nick Motos, i-Serve project coordinator; Dune Padre, EDP head; and Joe Perez, visitors center top honcho.)

TxtNaga is a mnemonic of (0917)8986242 or (0917)TXTNAGA, which Globe Telecoms graciously allocated to the Naga City School Board to serve as its hotline.

It was jumpstarted by the need to address the low completion rates in public schools. Our data shows that for every 100 students that enter Grade I in city public schools, only 83 would finish Grade VI, of which 77 will proceed to the secondary level. And of the 77 that enrolls in first year, only 57 will eventually finish high school. Student truancy contributes to this poor performance; by mobilizing the community to report incidents of truancy, and routing information directly to authorities for action, we thought the city will be able to improve the situation.

Our i-Governance initiative had been recognized by the Gawad Galing Pook for using ICT tools to engage ordinary citizens on the basis of "information openness." Naga's website (www.naga.gov.ph) exemplifies this: for two years running, it had been adjudged the best city website in the Philippines by the National Computer Center.

But all along, I believed the program's future lies with texting, for the simple reason that city residents have greater access to cell phones than they do with the internet. Our informal survey backs this up: 2 of every 3 households have a mobile, but only 1 our of every 3 residents can access the internet at home, at work, in school or through internet cafes.

Last January, my vision of an SMS-driven engagement mechanism began to take shape. Finally, we successfully bridged the gap in regard to SMS programming capability. The rest of pieces (funding, equipment, etc.) neatly fell in their proper places, including the green light from Mayor Jesse Robredo who saw the huge potential behind TxtNaga. So much so that he presented it during a plenary of the 2006 Mayors’ Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit (MAPES) on May 10, 2006 in Melbourne, Australia.

TxtNaga's upside lies in its customizability (multiple demand-driven applications can be designed), cheaper access cost (less than P1 per send) and faster routing of information (messages are sent directly to concerned authorities). Vice Mayor Gabby Bordado chuckled when I called it "TxtServe, Reloaded" during my presentation (reminding him of the Matrix trilogy), but it really is. TxtServe 2960 was the Smart Telecoms service that Naga used in its first foray into citizen engagement through texting.

For additional information, a copy of my presentation can be found here.