By Marvin Tort
Just recently my wife and I each received P5,000 from the Makati City government, as financial assistance made available to city residents during the quarantine period.
We received the money via direct “deposit” into our mobile-based GCash accounts. If memory serves me, this was the first time that we received money from the government, and electronically at that. We have never received any “relief” goods or funds from either the barangay or the city, previously.
The distribution process was, in my opinion, simple enough. At least, for registered voters of the city, or, holders of the Makatizen card or of Makati City’s “Yellow Card.” In our case, it was a matter of using a mobile application to fill up and submit electronically the necessary forms and IDs. We also nominated a mobile phone number that was linked, or could be linked, to a GCash account. And then we just waited for the money to come in.
The city, I guess with the help of GCash itself and maybe the telcos, vetted the information submitted and probably matched it against information on the voters’ list; or, the verification information submitted to GCash (for existing mobile subscribers with mobile-linked GCash accounts). And once both the city and GCash were sufficiently satisfied that the mobile number nominated belonged to a bona fide city resident, and thus a qualified recipient of assistance, the P5,000 was credited to the GCash account.
For one practically new in the FinTech world, who rarely uses GCash for financial transactions, it was short of “amazing.” It suddenly created “value” for GCash for us. I opened the GCash “account” only last year for trial and because I was curious how it worked. But I rarely used it since then, and kept only a small amount of credit in it. But, moving forward, I believe I will be using it more often as cashless transactions have become more practical in the COVID-19 era.
I had spent about five minutes filing up and submitting the “Maka-Tulong” application, and then waited about two weeks to receive a text message confirming the transfer of the P5,000 to my GCash account. No long lines or queuing at City Hall, no written forms, no face-to-face transactions, and no need to leave the house to apply for and to receive assistance. It was impersonal but it was direct, easy, convenient and comfortable. More important, it kept me safe from possibly getting infected — or infecting others — with COVID-19.
More important, since the transaction was technology-driven and required minimal human intervention or the exercise of human discretion, then it was relatively corruption-free. It was simple and straightforward. I received what I was supposed to get, no more, no less. And I received it precisely how the city government publicly communicated how it would be received by qualified city residents. Technology helped short-circuit the problematic governance formula “Discretion — Accountability = Corruption.”
While I have also heard of complaints from people who are yet to receive the city assistance to date, I also understand that no system is perfect. And that like many other technology-driven processes, it is at times a case of bad data going in, and bad data going out. The process can get stalled by discrepancies or faults in entering or encoding personal information like names or mobile numbers, or failing to submit a clear photograph or valid government identification card. But I am confident these problems will be resolved, eventually.
The advantages of this entire distribution process were that: 1.) it kept people “safe” and minimized the spread of COVID-19 through personal contact; 2.) it minimized bureaucratic lapses; 3.) it leveraged on available technology; 4.) it made people realize there are more ways than one for the government to assist people; and, 5.) the financial aid, once credited to a GCash account, was ready to be withdrawn as cash, to be transferred to a bank account, or, to be spent via GCash payments for goods or services.
To be honest, never did I think that I would be a witness and beneficiary of such a process in my lifetime. Having been born in an era without credit cards and mobile phones, where a bank deposit was proved mainly through a passbook or a bank certificate, and where Know-Your-Client/Customer guidelines were simply a matter of establishing a direct personal relationship with bank personnel, financially transacting in the “digital world” now via mobile phones is an obvious glimpse into the world of the near future.
The entire Maka-Tulong process, I reckon, also established my personal digital footprint — a verified and recognizable “electronic identity” that could be used in transactions with both the city government and GCash in the future. In fact, if such a database is shared, the same “identity” can be used in other private and public transactions as well. Couple this “electronic identity” with a National ID with biometrics, and possibly in the near future a centralized database on me could become readily available and accessible to private and public institutions to establish my identity and to transact with my “electronic” version.
But while ease of use, convenience, and health protection can be had with the help of technology, such a process is not without its risks. In fact, I believe a digital footprint or electronic identity is far easier to hack and hijack and more prone to identity theft — and actual theft. This said, the protection of an electronic identity becomes paramount, and a shared responsibility between the identity owner sharing it and the parties with access to it or are using it for transactions.
I can only hope that the city government and GCash have both invested well in securing and protecting their systems against hacking, data breach, and data theft. While we use technology and electronic processes now primarily to protect our health, we should just be just as vigilant in protecting our personal data and electronic identities. A major breach in our electronic health can be just as bad as COVID-19 sending us to the hospital or the morgue.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council