At the foot of the Mayon Volcano in Legazpi, Philippines, we sat down with Frei: data analyst, cyber security professional, and CEO and founder of Layertech, partner organization in the Open Up Contracting program.
Hi Frei. Tell us a bit about Layertech.
Layertech is a research and development company. We analyze data, develop software solutions, give training, work on research and on civic technology.
How would you define civic technology?
Well, for us, it means technology that connects people to their government. As a team, we believe that technology is about making the proper connections. We develop inclusive and effective software, targeted at the grassroots level. Prior to working for Layertech, I was working at an international cyber-security company. I noticed that the people who would benefit the most from technology, are those without access to it.
Do you think civic technology is an inclusive environment itself?
No. Actually, I’m still experiencing discrimination sometimes. Last year, a government employee heard about my position. His first reaction was: "She’s working in tech? But she’s female!" Especially when you’re female and young, people will not take you seriously.
There’s also a need to make civic technology more inclusive by including target users, but sometimes you overlook them if you’re the developer. We have worked with communities that dislike technology. How are you going to engage with them? You try to understand the reasons why they don’t like technology.
"We want to use civic technology to increase transparency, and to encourage young innovators to participate in the public procurement process"
How can Layertech help to improve this?
Layertech focuses on making impactful tech solutions that includes the users. For example, we’re working on a project called CloudCity, a feedback mechanism. The funder asked why we didn’t include artificial intelligence (AI) in it as it would have collected feedback from people in a much easier way. But imagine what that would look like 20 years from now. People would become totally reliant on AI. We want to use civic technology to increase transparency, and to encourage young innovators to participate in the public procurement process.
Tell me more about your role in the public procurement process.
We want to level the playing field for those participating in government bidding. When I was in college, me and my friends made lots of technological applications. We didn’t participate in the government bidding process because we didn’t know how to and also didn’t fully trust the system. If there would have been the level of transparency and equal opportunity that internet and digital technologies can offer, we would have been able to participate.
I know that there are many young people that have skills and passion, but they don’t have the opportunity to shine. That’s why we want to level the playing field; so they can participate. I believe they’re the ones who can really make a change.
As government, you’re essentially depriving the citizens of the quality of services that they really deserve. Layertech wants to use civic technology to change this: to increase transparency and to encourage young innovators to participate in the public procurement process.
One of the ways you’re already doing that is by working with local governments in the Philippines.
Yes, we created the OCDex Portal. We’re aiming to publish procurement data in a machine readable format here so we can encourage other people to study the procurement process. The portal is a commitment to open contracting and really shows what collaboration can do. It was made together with the business sector, the local government and the university.
What progress have you made so far with the portal?
We launched it publicly last year. The local government of Legazpi shared their procurement documents on the portal, complete from planning to award stage. They’ve been really cooperative, even though they were a bit hesitant at first. I think that’s natural for a government. Especially for the city Legazpi, which already made significant steps towards being more transparent. So it makes sense that when you mention open contracting, they ask us why there’s still a need for us to look into the contracting process and whether it is still ‘closed.’
Why do you think they had that response?
First, you have to understand that there’s a reason they feel that way. They don’t like all these new features that we’re introducing. It might be difficult to introduce this in their environment because of a slow internet connection or for other reasons. They also view anything related to this as additional work. Imagine you have a house and all of the sudden someone is looking at everything. The local government is afraid that the only reason we’re there is to wait until they make a mistake and then to expose that mistake.
How did you respond to that?
We try to reassure the local government that they know our design makes their work more transparent and actually won’t add to their workload. Legazpi hosts many government champions that we were able to tap into. We engaged with them, we listened to them. We were at their office almost every day before launching it and had many conversations with the employees who would be involved in the implementation.
What are your future plans for Layertech?
We plan on continuing to make civic technology. We want to help organizations and companies to make use of their data and we encourage data driven decision making. We also want to scale out our technologies. Layertech is like having your own research facility. We can research anything that’s in line with our own moral code and it’s not just about money. Partners like Hivos make sure of that.
For our technology to be effective and inclusive, we need the guidance of people that know more outside the field of technology and that have different linkages. For me, Hivos is more than just a partner. I see Hivos as a mentor. We’ve learned many things from Hivos about responsible technology development and the partnership has opened possibilities on how to deploy our technologies in order to make a change.
"It’s not about how people perceive you. As long as you’re sincere with what you’re doing, it’ll pay off"
Is mentorship important to you?
Yes! I have high functioning autism and grew up in the province. People didn’t know much about it, so everyone labeled me as weird. I don’t blame them, there was a lack of information. I found my first mentors in books by the likes of Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein. They also managed to overcome many obstacles.
Many teachers were telling me I wasn’t meant to be in science. But then, one professor told me a story about a play writer 300 years ago. He wrote many plays and was very rich. No one remembers his name now. At the same time, there was also a guy in jail who wrote just one book, but we do remember him. He wrote Don Quixote. My take away here was that it’s not about how people perceive you. As long as you’re sincere with what you’re doing, it’ll pay off. That in itself is a reward.
Do you try to be a mentor to others?
Yes. I totally understand how it feels to feel different, to feel that there’s something wrong with you. Just like how my mentors inspired me and pushed me forward, I want to be there for others. Every Christmas, Layertech throws a party for children with special needs. If there’s one kid that I can help, it makes a big difference for a kid if someone tells you that you can do it.
"It’s easier to corrupt one person than 100 people, so you have to give the power to the 100 people"
Anything else you want to mention?
Layertech is now in the process of expanding. We’re trying to scale out our solutions and we’re looking for more partners in and out of the country. One reason for this, is that the truth can easily be manipulated by authorities and this is something we face every day. We can better fight this with more partners. See it as a sort of crowdsourcing. As the saying goes that I grew up with, ‘it’s easier to corrupt one person than 100 people, so you have to give the power to the 100 people. And you can only do that if you have mechanisms and technologies in place that empower them.’
Thanks for your time, Frei!