MANILA, February 21, 2006
 (STAR) By Eden Estopace - The province of Bulacan, the city of Naga and the municipality of Trinidad, Bohol clinched top plums in the 2005 Web contest for local government units (LGUs) conducted by the Commission on Information and Communications Technology-National Computer Center (CICT-NCC) and the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communications (AIJC).

Held annually, the Web contest is part of the NCC’s flagship project "Jumpstarting Electronic Governance in Local Government Units."

Ma. Theresa Camba, director of the NCC’s Field Operations Office, said the establishment of an online presence is the first step in enabling LGUs to partially comply with the provisions of the Electronic Commerce Act of 2000, which urges all government entities to computerize their operations and be enabled for electronic commerce.

"This (Web contest) is the NCC’s way of encouraging LGUs to build and enhance their websites," Camba said.

Since the computerization project was started in September 2002, a high 98.8 percent or 1,675 out of 1,696 LGUs have complied with the directive to create an online presence.

Camba admitted, though, that the LGUs’ websites are either highly advanced or pretty much in need of improvements.

"Some LGU websites are already sophisticated, especially in terms of features and content, while the rest, particularly those of LGUs in remote areas that have no Internet connection, are only static and could use a lot of updating of information," she said.

Part of the challenge, according to Camba, lies in not having the necessary infrastructure to enable LGUs to have a well-maintained website.

The Web contest is the NCC’s way of encouraging LGUs to enhance their sites despite the limitations.

This year’s judges were professionals and ICT experts all chosen by the AIJ – Chin Wah Wong, faculty member of the Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism of Ateneo de Manila University; Juan Arturo Delfin, a website specialist of the Asian Development Bank; Alecks Pabico, online manager and training director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism; and Dindo Marzan, coordinator of Learning Resource Network.ph of Mosaic Communications Inc.

The winners will receive trophies in the awarding rites to be held in March to coincide with the celebration of CICT’s anniversary.

Other LGUs named finalists in this year’s contest were the provinces of Bataan, Benguet, Bohol and Zamboanga del Sur; the cities of Escalante, Bayawan and San Carlos in Negros Occidental, and Mandaue in Cebu; and the municipalities of Pandan in Antique, Calamba in Misamis Oriental, Tagudin in Ilocos Sur, and Manolo Fortich in Bukidnon.

Your hometown online

As of December 2005, 74 out of the country’s 79 provinces, 112 out of 117 cities and 1,489 of 1,500 municipalities have an online presence. This means that Filipinos all over the world can visit their hometowns anytime of the day in the virtual realm.

Camba affirmed that the response of the public to the LGU websites is so far, so good.

"Based on feedbacks received either through e-mail or postings in the LGU forum and message boards, the general public has responded very positively toward the initiative of bringing their hometowns online," she said.

Particularly active in such ventures, she added, are Filipinos who are living and working abroad.

"Little distortion here in Winnipeg, Canada, but understandably so. It’s always nice to hear news from back home with very nostalgic music to go with it. Keep up the good work...," a site visitor from Winnepeg, Canada commented on the RMN dwNX live webcast of the Naga City website.

"Thank God for the Internet. I can listen to your station here in Denver, Colorado, USA. Due to time difference, I have to stay up at night to listen to your afternoon nostalgic music. Great job," another listener from the US said.

The Naga City website (www.naga.gov.ph) is one of the few LGU websites that have an audio stream of local news and commentaries.

This is because the Naga City website, along with the two other winners of this year’s Web contest, is now in its third stage of Web development, which means it already has an interactive interface.

Stage 3 websites, according to Camba, feature interactive elements such as community forum, chatroom, discussion board, specialized databases, and downloadable forms, and even supports online submission of forms.

Of the three winning websites, Naga City has the most active community forum. It has 521 registered users and has a total of 14,040 articles posted (as of last week) covering a wide range of topics, including news and public affairs, business and entrepreneurship, entertainment, sports and recreation, the academe, digital world, random thoughts, the lighter side of life, and job opportunities. There were even the Metro Naga Community Forum and the RMN dwNX live webcast, among other threads on local concerns.

The online forum of the Bulacan provincial website (www.bulacan.gov.ph), on the other hand, has 100 members, 212 posts and 81 threads (as of last week). But instead of dividing the forum topics by themes, it has four broad categories – national issues, history of Bulacan, Isumbong Mo Kay Gov. Josie, and municipalities.

All 23 towns of Bulacan have their own forum area, which makes it easy for Bulakeños here and abroad to discuss common concerns. The forum, however, is relatively new so only Obando and Plaridel towns have posts.

"May listahan ba dito ng mga town fiestas (Do you have a list here of town fiestas)?" one online reader posted in the Shoutbox of the Bulacan website.

"Trabaho naman dyan! Fresh grad ako ng bsu (BSFA) (Job please, I am a fresh graduate of BSU (BSFA)," posted another.

The Bulacan website, though, has a job portal, which features job openings in the province and caters to companies, industries, government agencies and jobseekers. Like most online job sites, readers can post their resumés here, search through the database, and apply for a job.

While it may be too early to ask whether it is cost-effective to host a province-specific job portal and whether this is sustainable or not, one can glean from the website’s statistics that this is one of the most visited sections. At the time of our visit, we were visitor No. 83,479. The section also features interview tips for jobseekers and an "employer’s corner" catering to companies looking for workers.

Notwithstanding these interactive features, all three winning websites provide ample information about their respective localities.

The website of Trinidad, Bohol, for example, is an eye-opener for a non-Boholano.

"Welcome to the Municipality of Trinidad, a place of hospitable people at the northeastern part of the province of Bohol," the website says. But what province or town is not hospitable in this part of the world?

Perhaps, it is too much to ask of websites to provide an inner glimpse into the locality and its way of life, but when you skim through the facts and statistics provided across the sections, you more or less get an idea about the town.

Trinidad is 98 kilometers from Bohol’s capital city of Tagbilaran and is approximately a 3.5-hour bus ride. From Cebu, you can take the ferry to its neighboring towns of Talibon or Tubigon, and then a bus (10 minutes from Talibon, one hour from Tubigon).

These instructions come in handy in trying to picture where the town is situated in the province and enough to surmise that unlike Bohol’s more famous coastal towns, it is a landlocked municipality.

"Only rivers," said Quirino Renee Nugal, human resource management assistant of the municipality of Trinidad, in a chat interview on Yahoo Messenger during office hours.

The statistics are telling – 85 percent poverty incidence, 73 percent functional unemployment rate, and an average income of P5,746.25 per month for its constituents. And yet the crime rate is almost negligible at 0.0057 percent.

"Actually meron pong insurgencies nangyari noon pero doon lang po sa mountain areas but generally Trinidad is peaceful," Nugal said.

For a far-flung municipality, Nugal was proud to say that Trinidad’s website boasts more advanced features than those of other municipalities.

Indeed, the website design is simple, yet functional and well-thought of, especially in showcasing the town’s modest tourism offerings such as the Batungay Cave in Barangay Sto. Tomas and the Kawasan Falls in Barangay San Isidro. The location map of the whole municipality and each barangay is well-done.

Nugal disclosed that the municipality spent some P29,000 to put up and develop the website into its present form. He attributed its success to the full support given by former mayor Adel Garcia and incumbent Mayor Osias Flor Jr.

"Para naman po makilala ang aming bayan (So that people will get to know our town)," Nugal replied when asked why the municipal government decided to embark on the Web project.

Asked how many people or households are connected to the Internet in Trinidad, Nugal said in jest: "Sa totoo lang dito lang sa munisipyo (The truth is we at the municipal hall are the only ones)."

He said they get e-mails, though, from their townmates overseas and government agencies.

"That’s why we have a community e-center wherein we provide ICT-related services for a minimal fee," he said. "Our URL is also printed in official municipal communications."

Asked what type of information their overseas visitors usually seek for, Nugal said they mostly deal with family roots and the fiesta activities and other important events of the different towns.

In fact, he said they are now working on a directory or database of residents per barangay, as what Trinidanons want.

Although LGU websites have been getting favorable responses, the NCC noted that there is, indeed, a clamor for more information online.

"This is something we are painstakingly trying to address together with the LGUs," Camba said.

Virtual governance

Perhaps more than the information on their hometowns, what Filipinos really need is an interface with their government.

A letter sent to the e-mail address of Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo requesting for an interview generated a text response from the mayor right away, referring NetWorks to the people who could properly reply to queries about the city’s website and ICT efforts. Bulacan and Trinidad also gave the same swift responses. If it takes this fast to get a response to your complaint or a reply to your query and your transaction with government entities facilitated, we can say that this country will have a future.

Although it is not within the scope of this article to get to know, for example, how effective is the Bulacan’s website section "Isumbong Mo Kay Gov. Josie," still the potential is there for creating a connection between the government and the governed.

"We aim to provide technology access to the majority, if not to all of our constituents," Bulacan Gov. Josie de la Cruz said in an e-mail interview with NetWorks.

The Bulacan and Naga websites both have an SMS component where people can send text messages on local concerns.

"It’s good that Bulacan has a website of (its) own. It’s great that we’re proud of our culture and our country," wrote one reader in the website’s feedback section.

"Being a Bulakeño, it’s uplifting to know that you guys are on the Internet. This Web page is a very good source of information, especially for us who are away from home," wrote another.

"Bilib ako!!! It’s great to know that Bulacan is not left behind in terms of technology," a Las Vegas-based Bulakeño said.

Actually, De la Cruz said the website is helping the provincial government in terms of transparency, accountability and access to information.

The Bulacan website, for one, has an e-procurement section that allows the public to view all items and projects that are subject to bidding and quotation. It also has ample information for investors and business forms can be downloaded.

In the coming months, De la Cruz said online payments will be facilitated through the website via applications for fiscal management, revenue generation, and bureaucratic innovations such as the district hospital and property management information systems.

"Arrangements with the banks are in process," she said.

According to the NCC, this represents Stage 4 or transactional presence of the LGUs’ Web development, in which no local government has ventured yet. Most LGU websites, according to Camba, are still in Stages 1 (providing purely static information) and 2 (featuring regularly updated information, downloadable forms, search functions, and message boards).

Surprisingly, it is not costly to maintain a website at the LGU level. Nugal disclosed that they pay only P400 per month to the Central Visayas Information Systems Network (cvisnet) for hosting the site. Is it a discounted rate because of the nature of the service? "Probably," said Nugal.

De la Cruz affirmed that the cost of building – and maintaining – the Bulacan website was very minimal, saying they merely paid for the hosting service of Bitstop Networks Services-Dagupan.

In Bulacan’s case, Web development and maintenance is done in-house by its Web Development and Maintenance Division, consisting only of five employees from the Provincial Information Technology Office.

"We believe that virtual citizenship is key (to) cost-effective, convenient, fast, transparent and accountable government transactions providing basic services to the citizenry while being globally competitive," she said.

Of all three winning websites visited, Naga City provides the look and feel of local culture with its homepage greeting "Dagos po kamo sa ciudad nin Naga, an maogmang lugar," loosely translated as "Welcome to the City of Naga, a happy place." When we accessed the site at about 10:30 a.m., the RMN dwNX live webcast was also in the Bicol dialect. With this, Bicolanos away from their hometowns would surely feel nostalgic and at home instantly.

At the moment, sections and information in the local tongue of other LGU websites are still limited since the sites are apparently aimed at national and global audiences. But to the website administrator and the Naga City government, we say, "Dios mabalos sa indo gabos (Thanks a lot to all of you and God bless)."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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