Urban poor community goes on-line
By Gina Mission

The virtual house from the home page of Balay, the country's first-ever community website for the urban poor

n a pioneering effort at maximizing the potential of information technology (IT) in popularizing crucial housing issues, the urban-poor community invades cyberspace with the launching of Balay, the country’s first-ever community website on the urban poor and housing development.

___An "important milestone in the urban poor community advocacy" is how Ana Marie Karaos, organizer of the Urban Research Consortium, describes it.

___Accessible through www.codewan.com.ph/balay, the site answers the growing challenge to hasten advocacy work on housing issues and help people get easy access to the country’s urban poor and housing updates.

___Balay, a Cebuano term which literally means a house, an abode, a refuge, a home, was organized by Manila-based NGOs with urban poor and housing advocacy, with the support and assistance of the PLDT Foundation’s Project CodeWAN, short for the Countrywide Development Wide-Area Network.

___CodeWAN is a communications network dedicated, among other things, to the hosting of sectoral and issue-based community websites. Other sectoral communities already hosted by CodeWAN include women (Salidumay www.codewan.com.ph/Salidumay) and local governance (Balangay http://balangay.codewan.com.ph). The first of its kind in Asia, CodeWAN empowers civil society organizations (CSOs) in their continuing crusade for social, economic and political development by providing a venue and communication tools for their activities.

___As an online resource, Balay also seeks to extend the traditional concept of housing beyond that of just a physical structure. As a "home" for NGOs and people’s organizations (POs), it is intended to be a venue where people will live and form communities. A home where research studies, books, journals, photos, statistics and updates are archived for easy access and reference to the readers. A home where issues relevant to the urban poor are discussed. A home where urban poor are introduced to the nitty-gritty of the Internet, which is considered by some to be the very symbol of exclusivity, the virtual haven of the "haves".

___The Balay initiative, according to CodeWAN project director Rafael Lopa, is an effort towards conquering IT to help CSOs in their advocacy work. "When you mention ‘Internet’, the first two things that come to mind are computers and information. And when you talk about these things, the issue of resources and capabilities come into the picture," explains Lopa. "Naturally, the ordinary Filipinos get intimidated," he adds.

___More often than not, a wall is created between cyberspace and the lowly Filipino. As Mercedes Castro of the Urban Land Reform Task Force admits in her solidarity message: "…It cannot be denied that the information technology plays a vital role in the development of human lives. On the other hand, it is disheartening to think that the same technology will further widen the dichotomy of the powerless and the powerful, mostly because the former could not afford computers and therefore could not have access to this technology. And rather than serve as an empowering tool, IT could even disenfranchise the poor people."

___It is for this reason that Project CodeWAN came into being. "Basically, the project provides member NGOs and communities free access to the growing CodeWAN site. Even if these organizations don’t have access to the Internet, they wouldn’t be left out in the dark while everybody else is going on-line. The idea is to empower CSOs through IT," says Lopa.

___Beyond the issue of resources, there’s also the question of literacy. As Castro observes: "…And even when there’s access to this technology, poor people might lack the understanding to appreciate its usefulness."

___Taking into account the apprehension of people like Castro, Balay is organized in a way that is user-friendly. Links to the different sub-topics are unmistakably Filipino and portrays the basic day-to-day Filipino activities.

___The "update" link leads to news, feature stories and statements from the urban poor and housing community. The "housing rules" link features policy and legislation relevant to urban poor and housing concerns. "People in the neighborhood" is a directory of urban- poor CSOs, as well as of partner organizations in housing concerns. "Numbers that matter" is a facts-and-figures section concerning housing and the urban poor. "Library" links to the collection of relevant publications, photos, and videos of member CSOs. "Housing programs" is a self-explanatory link that features medium rise buildings, as well as a primer on the government’s Community Mortgage Program.

___In her solidarity message, Party-List Representative Pat Sarenas explores related topics that can also be featured in Balay to strengthen its "homey" features. Rep. Ariel Zartiga of AKO gives his support to the making of Balay, referring to it as the true home where life comes and flows.

___Anna de Rosas Ignacio, assistant general manager of the National Housing Authority encourages everybody to do "makibahay" (share home with) in Balay. As she stresses: "Don’t be afraid with computers, they are our friends. Let’s not allow the technology to run our lives, rather, let’s control it for our own benefit. Let’s invade cyberspace. Let’s claim our rightful place in it."

CyberDyaryo | 1999.05.13