As the world becomes more connected and digital interconnectivity begins to play a bigger role in all our lives, it has begun to extend its reach to the rural areas of the world; either by its own natural development or brought into these communities as a means to solve a problem. Panama is increasing its digital infrastructure and finding digital solutions to connect people in their private, academic, and work lives. Residential internet access has become accessible to a majority of the population, with 58% (2.4 million) of panamanians being internet users in 2018 and 540,220 having accounts with an internet provider (1). Most people have smartphones and they are relatively cheap to purchase, in 2018 there were 138 cell phones per 100 inhabitants which indicates many Panamanians have multiple phones per person (2). In Panama mobile data coverage is found in most of the populated regions of the country, interestingly enough in 2018 96% of the population (4,009,794 of 4,176,869) had mobile cell phone coverage in spite of only 38% of the national territory actually having cell coverage (Panama has an area of 29,157 square miles or 75,517 square kilometers) (2). Along with all these statistics it doesn’t hurt either that Panama has four major submarine fiber optic lines running through the Panama Canal and 3 others landing on either the Pacific or Caribbean side of the country (3). Recognizing these statistics and seeing the data that is projected for the years to come, it is safe to say that Panama is and will continue to be a beacon of internet connectivity and access in Latin America and the Caribbean. We at Future Scientist are developing an application in order to connect water system users (community members) to a digital means to monitor their payments for the managers of the water system (water committee) and vice versa. We want to bring rural organizational finance management to the digital age. The application is called ConectaRoo, and we think it will transform the way rural water committees collect funds forever.
You may ask, what is the problem we are specifically trying to solve? What galvanized us to develop software like this? Also, if so many people have cell phones in Panama, how are they disconnected or without a bank account to facilitate their finances? The issue in many rural communities in Panama is that water committees have to be self-sustainable in order to have a proper functioning and successful water system. This basically means that they need money in their committee bank account in order to carry out any type of repair, maintenance, addition, or new home connection to the rural aqueduct. This means they need the majority of the community paying their monthly water bill, which in Palenque’s case is $2.00/month. The problem in many of these communities is that people do not pay their monthly bill so the water committees are often without funds; as a result these water committees break up and disintegrate and a community loses its leadership and the water system ends up failing and the community ends up without potable water in their homes. Also, these rural communities don’t have easy access to banking institutions. For example, people who live in Costa Arriba have access to only one ATM machine that is located in Portobelo, and that ATM machine is under surveillance and has a specific time it is available due to the machine having been stolen before. The closest bank is in Sabanitas, which is hours away from many of these communities, and very few people have cars. To give an example let’s go to Palenque, Colón, which is the community where we wish to prototype the application as a way to support the water committee there. After a couple meetings between the water committee and Future Scientist, we’ve been able to frame the issue of water access in the region. Palenque is a community of roughly 100 residences and establishments. For residencies the monthly water bill is $2.00. For businesses it is $5.00. We can estimate that, assuming everyone pays their monthly bill, the committee should be receiving roughly $220.00/month (roughly 6 businesses including schools and other government buildings, and 95 homes. The water committee tells us they’re receiving around $25.00/month on average. That’s a monthly budget difference of $195.00 and a yearly difference of $2,340.00. There is a lot a dedicated rural water committee could do with a yearly budget of $2,365.00. So in order to solve the problem at its root and not allow these inevitable chain of events to occur from lack of funding, we wanted to create a digital system that created transparency and accountability between the community members and the members of the water committee. Assuming a strong work ethic among committee members, if we can assure the water committee’s economic stability, then we eliminate all the problems that would be the result of their disintegration. If the committee works hard, makes improvements and maintains the system with the money they’re receiving, there will be a greater level of trust and confidence between community members and the water committee, thus a great level of cooperation. From our experience in Costa Arriba, the problem is not their work ethic. The water committees we’ve worked with are desperate to work and improve their respective water systems and only complain of the lack of monetary means to do so.
The application works as a digital account monitoring assistant in that the water committee is able to monitor the monthly payments of the community members who are connected to the water system and the community members are able to monitor what the water committee does with those funds. The application is cloud based so all changes and updates to the user and manager accounts are updated in real time. This will also serve in protecting the information from storage failure and unexpected power outages. Our initial implementation of the project will be in the community of Palenque and it will be through a computer program run with Microsoft Access that will create a digital database and can be accessed in the local SENACYT built Infoplaza; which are government funded internet cafés (4), or local business partners with internet access. We want to begin by using computers because we want to first see the impact it has in the collection of funds as well as survey people’s feedback of the program. The final objective is to turn our Access database into a smartphone application. This way it can be integrated even where there isn’t an Infoplaza but there is a strong enough phone signal that people are able to use mobile phone data. It would give the project a farther reach and allow more communities access to the software. Below is a more succinct breakdown of the ConnectaRoo solution as well as an illustration.
ConnectaRoo provides a digital administrative solution:
• Accountability and communication system among users (households) and managers (committee members) by establishing trusted intermediaries (e.g., store owners) to relay financial transactions and notices.
• Transparent cash-based financial transaction documentation to raise baseline level of trust and amplify incremental gains.
• Bidirectional communication to empower communities and increase resilience by sharing information and real-time notification of issues and opportunities.
Current COVID-19 Tech Solutions in Latin America and Panama
Coming back to the still omnipresent topic that is Coronavirus, we’d like to present some examples of how Latin America, Panama, the Panamanian federal government, and the private sector have utilized digital monitoring and video conferencing technology to combat the virus and allow certain sectors of society to continue to function.
A new government initiative in order to get stimulus money out to its citizens was utilized by using the barcodes on citizens’ identification cards as a sort of credit card (5). The stimulus amount granted to Panamanians was deposited to their ID cards and they were able to use their ID as a debit card in order to make purchases at the grocery store. This was a way to get money to Panamanians given the fact that many Panamanians do not have bank accounts.
MEDUCA (Ministerio de Educación, Ministry of Education) as well as private schools in Panama have implemented digital classes for students. They have been utilizing a virtual platform called Titán by a Spanish company called Educaline (6). The platform contains books and other digital content, endorsed by the Ministry of Education for the use in public and private schools. The program has been approved internationally and has been used since before the pandemic in some Panamanian high schools.
In Latin America, the Chinese tech company Huawei has supplied various technological tracking and diagnostic tools for the virus in countries like Honduras and Argentina as well as a tool to understand the genetic makeup of the virus (7). In Argentina they have implemented thermal cameras with AI (artificial intelligence) in the Ezeiza International Airport in order to identify travelers with a high temperature and then sound the alarm of the possible medical risks to ease the detection of the virus. It has been implemented in Honduras as well, Honduras being one of the first in Central America to do so. In Panama, the chinese tech giant has supplied a video conferencing platform as well as a tech support team so that Ministry of Health workers can communicate with Chinese doctors and scientists to share knowledge, practices, and experience about their battle against COVID-19.
As our world globalizes more and more, we will remain further and further connected like never before. Digital connectivity is creating solutions for monitoring and distancing problems in urban settings as much as rural ones. We hope that these technological solutions have a place in these rural regions of the country and that the people can adapt to the change of the way of doing things. We at Future Scientist see this new technology as a valuable problem solving tool of the 21st century and wish to implement it where we can to create long-term solutions for those in need.