After the Geeks on a Beach conference in Cebu Island, I took some time to visit Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, and meet a few creative agencies there.

Not expecting anything in particular and leaving wide open my radars, I visited two creative agencies – for sake of a better word – which gave me a very positive impression.

Awesome Lab: a hackerspace and makerspace with a focus on business

I have been introduced to Nikko Torcita, the CTO of Awesome Lab, by my girlfriend, who had visited Manila before me on her own exploration of technologies for the base of the pyramid.

The best way to describe what the company is can start with a few pictures. The place is taking a floor of a residential building, and when you enter it, works are under way to expand it.

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Inside the office itself, a myriad of components, cables, Arduino and custom boards, screens of all sizes, as well as lab material such as test tubes, captors and sensors make you feel like in a playground for geeks.

And that’s what it is, except that most of the projects are funded by FMCGs willing to experiment new connections between software and hardware. Nikko sees the Awesome labs as “the technology partners for big companies. We’re flexible, and have a better capability to create innovative stuff than if they did it in house”.

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They usually work in two ways:

  • Lab to market, with new things being developed here and when ready, rolled out in the real world. About a third of the lab resources are dedicated to this type of projects.
  • Market to lab, where advertising agencies or advertisers would come to the lab to augment their existing campaigns or services

Nikko can’t disclosed too much of what they do, what I saw included different prototypes for the retail and F&B industries, with the use of Kinects, augmented reality, Arduino and home-made boards, and software development.

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Except from the business projects, the team also works to create social impact. This microscope, for instance, can be used with any camera from any phone to magnify anything placed under it. Here, I’ve tried to picture a mosquito with my own smartphone : )

By Implication: open-data and social impact

The following day, I visited By Implication, a development and consulting agency working on projects ranging from gaming apps to open-data projects as well as more traditional webdesign.

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Co-founded by five quite hardcore geeks, the company is now working more and more on its own projects, most of which try to solve local issues through data and apps.

The team is behind Open Reconstruction, an open-data platform which helps to track the donations and spending linked to the reconstruction efforts after typhoon Yolanda. Back in 2013, this natural disaster had left more than 6 000 people missing, and about $2.3bn damage. Lots of money flew into the Philippines to rebuild houses, bridges, and communities.

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The platform changes two things:

  • First, it accelerates the decision-making, by reducing the number of steps involved between the different stakeholders of the reconstruction: towns, local government, government agencies, NGOs, contractors, etc. The whole process of application has been digitalised both to capture data and make it easier to process.
  • Then, of course, by getting rid of paper and putting everything online, it increases the transparency of the reconstruction. Where is the money dispatched? What agencies and contractors get the most contracts? What type of infrastructure is being given money exactly?

The next step for OpenReconstruction is to include citizens’ notifications on the follow-up of the projects.

The team is also working on projects increasing the political transparency of a country better known for its corruption index (at the time of our visit, huge demonstrations protested against the pork barrels all over the country).

  • Rollcall.ph is a first platform they have built to track down the presence of the member of parliaments in office. It shows who is there and who is not, and also shows for a few days in the years when the minimum quorum for voting is not even reached because of absenteeism.

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  • Politi-ko.com is another way to involve citizen and make them choose their candidates based on facts rather than charisma. Each candidate’s proposals, public speeches and positions are scanned through and, from a user perspective, a quizz allow to know what candidate they are closer to.

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A lot of other projects are in the pipe, such as Storylark, an iTunes for comics in the Philippines, as well as Sari.ph, a program to digitise the numerous mom and pop’s shop and turn them into service centres, but we’ll talk of it in a dedicated article.

Meeting the two teams, who know each other well and sometimes collaborate, gives a quick but amazing picture of how Manila nerds, geeks, makers are not only creative, but business and problem-solving focused.

And with the notorious Filipino way to welcome people, you have no reason not to push their doors and see what they do.