Tech Whiz from Manila’s Slum

From Drugs to Apps

“God saved me,” declared Jay Angelo Pineda.

He was 14. The gang was standing in a “strange” alley, through which few dared to pass—except for a group of young street evangelists that sunny day.

“We were armed with sumpak (homemade shotguns). I saw no sign of fear in their faces,” Pineda said in an interview.

“There was a bizarre energy. I felt like my spirit was being lifted the moment they approached me,” he continued.

He said meeting the street evangelists from Destiny Church was “God’s plan.”

“I was supposed to meet a buyer that day. It didn’t happen. It never happened again.”

His path changed in 2014, two years before the Duterte drug war that killed at least 8,663 people, including at least 73 children, according to a report from the UN Human Rights Council.

“When I was 12, I was the youngest gang leader in our barangay (village). I was a high school freshman dropout. My life was a total mess,” Pineda said.

He grew up in a Catholic household.

He has a sister who is four years younger than him. His parents were both working professionals.

“I lived in a community where extreme poverty and illegal activities like drug trade were ways of life,” Pineda said.

He matured in the streets and narrow alleys of Batasan Hills, known as a slum colony in Quezon City, just northeast of the Philippine capital.

That was Pineda’s paradise as a child.

“I felt that something was lacking in my life, so I tried to figure out what it was by joining my friends in the streets,” he said.

Speaking softly, Pineda recalled that he and his friends sold shabu, or methamphetamine hydrochloride, in the village. He was just 12 when he started.

“I was an occasional drug user,” Pineda admitted. As a pusher, he could earn P100 to P5,000 per transaction.

“I was scared, of course. There’s fear within us. It’s normal. But I had gotten used to that kind of business,” he said.

Pineda was just one of the many children in the country involved in illegal drug activities.

From 2016 to 2019 alone, Philippine authorities have rescued more than 2,000 children from the illegal drug trade, according to a July 2019 report by the state-run Philippine News Agency.

Luckily, Pineda was not part of the statistics.

REFORMED

Pineda has been very active in the church for eight years now.

He has spent the past six years working to make a difference, to shed a stigma tied to his dark past.

Pineda has gone from a troublemaker to a community hero.

In November, more than 8,000 people gathered on Facebook Live to celebrate as the 23-year-old tech whiz received the Manuel L. Quezon 18th Gawad Parangal award for his creative and innovative contribution during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pineda developed an app to help frontliners with their daily commute during the strict quarantine period.

“My heart is full, and I bring back all the highest praise and glory to you, Lord. It is all because of Him,” Jay said in a Facebook post after receiving the award.

He now focuses on church, community outreach activities, and tech projects.

In college, he discovered his passion for artificial intelligence (AI) — the concept behind the creation of machines or apps that can think, act, and learn like humans.

Pineda dreamed up Whiz Philippines six years ago. It’s a tech startup that gave birth to the app that has helped at least 20,000 commuters during the pandemic.

The free app provides information about Quezon City’s free bus routes, commuting guidelines, COVID-19 updates, and health center and barangay directories, among others, Pineda explained enthusiastically.

He wants to create more AI apps to address the needs of the people of Quezon City.

But despite his achievements, there are still people — old friends and neighbors — in his community who do not see him as a reformed person.

“I hear people still calling me a drug addict, a pusher. It hurts me,” Pineda said. “It seems that persons like me who want to change, have no chance of being fully accepted again.”

Pineda wants to tell the Philippines that there is hope for individuals like him.

“They can change. They can make a difference in society. Give them a chance,” he said.

But the tough-talking President had a different message in 2016 to “you drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings.”

“You’d better get out of here. I will kill you.”

Pineda said, “That’s not right. There’s hope.”

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Arjay L. Balinbin

Arjay L. Balinbin is a Manila-based business journalist. He pursued a Master’s Degree in Journalism through the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung fellowship at the Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University. Arjay serves as Multimedia Editor at BusinessWorld Publishing Corporation, the Philippines’ oldest business newspaper. In his role, he oversees articles dedicated to micro, small, and mediumsized enterprises (MSMEs) and occasionally the corporate stories. His reporting also extends to areas such as publicly traded companies, start-ups, and government agencies within the technology, telecommunications, and transportation sectors. Arjay has covered events in Spain, Germany, Malaysia, and Singapore.

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