The COVID-19 pandemic severely damaged the Philippine economy, leaving 7.3 million Filipinos unemployed during the first few months of the lockdown. Left with no source of income, the national government devised a solution to provide financial assistance to marginalized and low-income families that belong to the informal economy.
The national government allocated more funding for the already existing Social Amelioration Program (SAP). It is originally intended to provide monthly financial assistance to impoverished families but now includes bringing tide over to people like Rommel.
Rommel Salva is a 25 year-old construction worker living in Quezon City. He lives on paycheck to paycheck, earning meagerly pre-pandemic. Unfortunately, like millions of Filipinos, he was rendered jobless during this crisis.
“My work was stable before the pandemic. I was able to feed my family, pay our rent, water, and electricity bills. But now, my work has become unstable, and what I am earning rarely lasts for three days. It is not enough,” Rommel expressed.
Rommel is qualified to receive financial assistance from the government amounting to ₱8,000 (roughly equivalent to 164 USD). However, one year has elapsed since and he has yet to receive the promised aid.
“They told me to wait because my papers are still being processed but weeks and months have passed and I even heard that there was a second wave for the distribution but I still have not received anything,” he shared.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) acknowledged its lapses in the distribution of SAP, sharing that Local Government Units (LGUs) fell short in providing a list of target beneficiaries.
“Of course, it was very disappointing to hear. But what’s more frustrating is that I was deeply hoping to receive that money. I was going to use it to buy and stock groceries so the kids can eat something,” Rommel added.
Solution: Social protection chatbot
Recognizing the discrepancies on existing social welfare programs, Bantay Bayan, a citizen and legal-watch assistance program initiated by GoodGov PH, produced their own chatbot called Bantay that simulates real-time conversation on addressing eligibility concerns and other queries surrounding SAP and social pension.
It was created by a group of young changemakers, namely: Atty. Charles de Belen, Atty. Julia Therese Pineda, Carmela Francesca Adelantar, Shannen Edwin Dilapdilap, Carl Christian Lumberio, Arianne Fabregas, and Alyanna Gopez.
“Our team has seen that many people who are claiming for these financial support from the government were unjustly excluded even if they are qualified. An overwhelming of 7000 complaints was filed against SAP alone for the exclusion and irregular distribution,” Arianne shared.
Bantay Chatbot emerged as the winner of the #DigitalAgainstCovid19 Innovation Challenge organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Open Government Partnership (OPG) where they brought home 10,000 USD to launch their idea in the Philippines and other interested developing nation members of ADB.
How does it work?
“Bantay Chatbot is an artificial intelligence (AI) software that can simulate a conversation or chat with a user in a natural language through messaging applications, websites and applications,” Shannen and Carl explained.
It is a welfare assistance chatbot that can provide accurate and useful information to its users on their queries with the help of a supervised learning machine. It can monitor user's commands and replies to the chatbot which are collected for Bantay to be tailored to meet user's needs, ultimately enhancing user experience.
“Bantay Chatbot applications streamline interactions between people and services, enhancing public experience. At the same time, it offers organizations new opportunities to improve the public engagement process and operational efficiency by reducing the typical cost of public service,” they said.
It also provides professionally vetted recommendations and forwards complaints to relevant government offices.
Contribution and Impact to Social Development
“Bantay was designed with the Filipino user in mind. There are 89 million social media users and 79 million smartphone users - all these users can access Bantay for free, anytime, anywhere,” Atty. Julia said.
"Since Bantay is available on Facebook, any Filipino can access it even on free data," Shannen and Carl added.
One of Bantay’s key features is its ability to provide accurate and timely responses 24/7, free of charge.
It can be programmed to give automated replies to repetitive questions promptly and direct requests when an action requires human assistance.
"This [feature] enables human customer service representatives to save time and assist more important cases rather than time consuming simple tasks," they shared.
This makes Bantay an inclusive platform, instrumental to bridging the information gap between social welfare programs and its recipients by serving as a 24/7 user-friendly hotline.
Its accessibility and convenience is valuable in advancing strong institutions through its contribution in making Filipinos well-informed on their rights and entitlements under the law.
It provides users essential tools in demanding accountability such as recommendation and complaint forms. Thus, helping combat corruption and abuse of social welfare programs.
"Bantay will make accountability and efficient delivery of social welfare a norm in the government and the LGUs involved in social welfare distribution," they affirmed.
Plans and Possibilities
“Bantay seeks to further improve the technology from where it was built. We seek to integrate machine learning and natural language processing to further improve the user’s customer experience and enable it to deliver its service accurately and efficiently,” Atty. Charles said.
Team Bantay is working to make the chatbot available in major languages and dialects in the Philippines. The team also plans on integrating Bantay on different messaging platforms and SMS.
“Aside from social welfare programs, we will also provide other modules that will provide legal assistance in other underserved legal markets such as labor law, small claims, and [Violence Against Women and Children],” he added.
For GoodGovPh’s next project, it is eyeing to create an election-related application that will provide a data analytics powered scorecard to help voters decide on which candidates to support and vote for.
Financial Challenges and Technological Limitations
Although Bantay is efficient in giving exact and immediate responses to most frequently asked questions, its biggest challenge is its incapacity to answer all questions of users.
To address this, the team is in search of a technological solution to improve Bantay’s content and responsiveness.
“Bantay relies on technology to achieve mass reach at reduced costs. Our team has many great ideas for Bantay, but are challenged with technological development, which could be complex and costly,” Atty. Julia said.
Currently, Bantay operates on a freemium business model where it offers initial legal assistance at no cost while also offering paid services. Paid services can be legal support or through presenting auto-generated customized action documents (e.g., complaint forms) available for download.
To sustain Bantay, the team is looking at other revenue streams such as white labelling the program to agencies and LGU partners, and corporate sponsorships through its corporate social responsibility initiatives.