ONE of the major effects that the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic brought upon us is the rapid adoption of digital technologies in our day-to-day activities.
"Many industries were devastated by the pandemic and many found themselves unprepared for the 'new normal.' Digital payments and e-commerce solutions were almost non-existent for basic necessities pre-pandemic," John Naranjo, chief executive officer of Ingenuity, said in an online interview with SunStar Davao.
However, when the pandemic struck and progressed on, many local businesses and institutions saw the need to integrate digital solutions to ensure that they continue to operate.
"Digital transformation has picked up significantly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in e-commerce, logistics for small parcels, payment gateways, call center services, IT and business process outsourcing. Online freelance work continues to be in demand," lawyer Samuel R. Matunog, ICT Davao president, said in a separate online interview.
Naranjo said many businesses, with digital tools, have acquired new customers and are servicing segments of the market that was inaccessible to them pre-pandemic.
This shift has led to new opportunities for the ICT sector and its talents as more local businesses and local government units adapted to the new normal.
Adapting to new normal
One of the biggest utilization of digital technology was on the management of Covid-19 cases. Governments around the world have used a variety of digital solutions to test, trace, and treat their people.
"Technology is being used in many different ways during this crisis. From rapid vaccine development to advances in video conferencing, to virtual classrooms, eCommerce/online shopping, cashless payments, delivery apps, etc.. technology has made this pandemic much more manageable than previous ones," Naranjo said.
For many areas in the Philippines, the QR code system is a popular digital solution used by different local government units (LGUs) and businesses.
"Most businesses and LGUs have tried to use QR codes, a non-contact method of monitoring and regulating the movement of persons and in some instances for contact-tracing purposes," Matunog said.
In Davao City, the city government is implementing the Safe Davao QR.
"The QR system allows you to know if you could have come into contact with someone who has Covid. For example, if you were at a store at the same time as a person who has Covid, you'll be notified that you may have been exposed and should act accordingly (self-monitor, self-isolate/quarantine, or call for help)," Naranjo said.
Ingenuity and ICT Davao are part of the team developing the Safe Davao QR. The two parties came in after the first version of the Safe Davao QR problem experienced several technical problems.
Naranjo clarified that the Safe Davao QR system does not track all your movements, rely on GPS data or other personal information, or create a giant database of everything about everyone.
"It uses a generic identifier, the QR code, which is loosely tied to your contact information for notification purposes. The system only knows that two (or more) QR codes were in the same place at about the same time. If one of that QR is associated with a positive Covid case, the related QR codes get notified," Naranjo said.
Technologies used to adapt to the new normal were not only limited to the QR code.
"At the start of the pandemic, Davao City offered remote consultation using SMS (to notify doctors) and mobile phones (to connect patients and doctors)," Matunog said.
He also said businesses and LGUs extensively used cloud-based solutions like Zoom, Teams/Skype/Whatsapp (Microsoft), Chime (Amazon), and Messenger (Facebook), among others, for virtual meetings.
"Data analytics and visualization tools were also used to make the public aware of the status of Covid-19 cases (infections, infection rate, distribution, deaths, recoveries, etc.) and government response like testing centers, hospitals and isolation facilities (location, number of persons accommodated)," Matunog said.
Naranjo said while there are many applications at play in the local government as well as hospitals, the one that probably has had the most impact is video conferencing.
"Free or low-cost video conferencing has allowed everyone to work together while being physically separated. Government agencies have been able to set and move policies forward, students have been able to attend classes, doctors have been able to see patients at reduced risk to themself and others, and many businesses have been able to maintain some level of operations," he said.
However, as more people use digital technology, the problems in the country's broadband connectivity were also highlighted.
Matunog said there are three main challenges faced by those who use digital technology: (1) broadband connectivity and speed (wired/fixed and wireless) - for cloud-based applications; (2) mobile connectivity - coverage and reliability of signal; (3) cost of connectivity and hardware.
It can be noted that the internet in the Philippines has been a problem even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the 6th Mindanao Policy Research Forum in September 2020, Dr. Rogel Mari D. Sese reported that based on the speed test data from Ookla, the Philippines has an average fixed broadband speed of 22.31 Mbps and an average mobile broadband speed of 14.23 Mpbs.
"An alternative result taken from Google MLab shows that the average speed for the Philippines is only about 3.41 Mbps, which is significantly lower to the global average," said Sese, who is the chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) and focal person of the Philippine Science Education Program of the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI).
He added MLab results also showed that the average speed in Davao is only at 2.57 Mbps.
However, these have been slowly addressed by telecommunication services providers.
As of January 2021, data from Ookla's Speedtest Intelligence showed that the Philippines has an average fixed broadband download speed of 32.73 Mbps and an average mobile internet speed of 25.77Mbps.
"In urban centers like Davao City, telecommunication companies like PLDT/SMART, Globe, SkyCable, and various Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have upgraded their infrastructure and this resulted in a significant increase in download and upload speeds which are now approaching the global average (between 40 to 60 Mbps)," Matunog said.
He said broadband connectivity in the Philippines can still be improved, especially in telecommunications infrastructure.
"To improve broadband connectivity we need to encourage more investments in infrastructure: submarine cables and cable landing stations for international connectivity (just like Globe, so Mindanao can connect directly to the world, instead of relying on connections routed from Luzon) and for domestic connectivity (linking islands and island groups with each other - Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao); terrestrial and underground fiber optic cables to distribute broadband to last-mile providers; and more cell-sites to improve wireless broadband connectivity," Matunog said.
He added that competition is a key element to improving connectivity in the country and the pace of legislation needs to pick up to provide a policy framework for healthy competition.
Naranjo said it does not mean that all digital solutions available pre-pandemic are applicable as the pandemic progresses on and in a post-pandemic society.
"This is the first pandemic of the digital age, so many of the technologies being used were not 'designed' for how they are being used during this crisis. We think adopting these technologies into a more coherent platform for managing public health emergencies will lead to many new opportunities," Naranjo said.
He said there are many technologies and solutions that local businesses can benefit from and new business models that can help reduce income inequalities and provide more opportunities for more people.
Naranjo said Covid-19 has "shown us the weaknesses in some of our past practices and that a new way forward is necessary for a more positive future for everyone."
"The best possible advance for the local IT scene and the local business community is in re-evaluating our old ways of doing things. Does what worked in the past make sense for the future?" Naranjo said.
He said one of the new ICT opportunities the pandemic has brought to the spotlight is the need to improve the speed of sharing information.
"One of the challenges of the current pandemic is the speed of the flow of information (accurate or not) and that it is very challenging to get the correct and accurate information to the decision-makers and the public at large," Naranjo said.
He said this is one of the "key weaknesses" that will be addressed to help manage pandemics in the future.
"There is plenty of room for improvement in communication tools, information/knowledge sharing, virtual meetings, and online classrooms...and there are plenty of opportunities (and profit) available to people willing to help bring about these improvements," Naranjo said.
Matunog said satellite technology and aerospace engineering are also opportunities in a post-pandemic society.
Sese said satellite technology is one of the alternative technologies that can be maximized to improve connectivity in the country.
"Satellites are also used for health, identifying hotspots for diseases, contact tracing, remote consultations, and medical response," he said.
Matunog said Ateneo de Davao University should be supported as it pioneers in these domains to improve the communication infrastructure.
He added that a satellite receiving station could also be beneficial in a post-pandemic society.
"Imaging data from cube satellites should be shared to local researchers to help predict climate change and their impact on agriculture and communities as food security, among others, is vital to surviving a pandemic," Matunog said.
He also called for support for research and development on artificial intelligence, internet of things (IoT), 5G, deep technologies, among others, for disaster preparedness and management.
With the new opportunities in the ICT sector brought about the pandemic, Naranjo urged local ICT talents and firms to participate in developing digital solutions for an emerging market.
"The best way for local talents and homegrown ICT businesses to take part in these opportunities is to get involved and learn about the needs of the local community and businesses in general," Naranjo said.
He said Davao City is blessed with local IT and design talent that are capable to cope with the demands for digital solutions.
Naranjo also pointed out that if the public and private sectors work closely together like that they did in the development of the Safe Davao QR, they will be able to make most of the opportunities in the ICT sector that is available to them.
"The coordination between the different communities during this crisis has been exceptional. It is our hope that the coordination between the public and private sectors continues for the benefit of the city and its residents," he said.
Naranjo said the Covid-19 pandemic was not a unique problem.
"It is new for us, there have been many pandemics throughout history and there will be many other challenges in the future. The community will need to be more agile and responsive to survive these challenges and the ICT firms have an important role to play in this future," he said.