“We see democracy itself as a technology”: Audrey Tang on Covid and Data

What did Taiwan do right in the fight against COVID-19?

It is important to understand that this is our second confrontation with this kind of virus. The first time was SARS in 2003, and we just panicked. The central government said different things from the municipal governments, locking down an entire hospital unannounced, all in all 73 people died. In 2004, the constitutional court charged the legislature to review everything we did wrong and set up a new mechanism, the Central Epidemic Control Center, to make sure that the communication is timely and the collective intelligence, the citizens' input can reach the CECC.

What are the central elements of your present COVID-19 strategy?

We have acted along three principles: fast, fair and fun. Fast: There is a toll-free number that anyone can call and report for example a shortage of masks. Fair: We are ensuring through the single payer national health insurance that more than 99,9% of not just citizens, but also residents can have access to rationed masks. And finally, fun, humor over rumor: We battle the infodemic of conspiracy theories by creating memes and cute figures like Shiba Inu that people shared much more on social media than conspiracy theories.

Corona is more than a health crisis: What was your role as the Digital Minister?

The most important technologies in the Corona crisis are soap, sanitizers and the physical vaccine, the mask. But we did use a lot of novel data applications to battle the pandemic – like an app developed by citizens, civic hackers as we call them here. This app visualizes the availability of masks at pharmacies, enabling people to make evidence-based interpolations and base their critique on real data.

Transparency creates trust.

One key factor is alignment: Everybody can see that pharmacists, to stay with this example, really share the goal of giving as many people as possible access to masks. The other factor is accountability: Not only can everybody check the app, everybody can suggest better distribution methods.

How do you guarantee privacy?

We call it participatory self-surveillance. In high risk places like bars we do require that people make it possible to be contacted in case of a local transmission. But all information is distributed and decentralized and preserves the anonymity valued at such places.

Democracy is not very different from semiconductor design – anyone can improve it.

And what exactly is a citizen hacker?

In Taiwan, there is a community called g0v. The idea is that all the digital services that the government offers can be forked – which means they can gointo different directions while preserving their core value. This gets you into the shadow government, which is always more fun and participatory, right?

What makes the Taiwanese society so open to new technology, so quick to adapt?

One important factor is that in Taiwan democracy is really new. The first presidential election was in 1996, the world wide web already existed. We see democracy itself as a technology, an applied social technology. The constitution is something that you can tweak and change – we already did it five times and are now considering another change. In a way, democracy is not very different from semiconductor design – anyone can improve it.

What is the other factor?

It is connected to the first: People who are 40 years old and more remember the years of martial law. And any technology that threatens to take society back to a more authoritarian era is an automatic non-starter in Taiwan. We'll just say: Do you want to go back to martial law? Do you want to go back to white terror?

What are non-authoritarian technologies for you?

We are very focused on democratizing technologies like free software, open-source or the distributed ledger of the blockchain. We also question historical rituals of democracy, like a vote every four years. Is that really a good idea? Do you get all the best input for the democratic institutions? We augmented the election process and introduced referenda, participatory budgeting, E-petitions, you name it.

Western democracies seem to be struggling in this pandemic with a very disparate reaction to the challenge of Corona. What is your take on this?

The great thing about democracy is the resilience. It relies on people actually having scientific understanding and renewing the institution. It will be better the next time around. Just as Taiwan in 2004 set up a new infrastructure and did yearly drills and augmented with the latest digital technologies. I'm sure that now that you have this societal exposure to a SARS 2.0, you too will do better when SARS 3.0 comes around.

This new infrastructure that you talk about is in many ways technological?

Yes and no. Participatory self-surveillance relies on broadband as human rights. If there is no broadband access people can still watch television and listen to radio – but they cannot report in real time. The second element is media competence and digital competence – everyone is essentially media. The twin pandemic, the infodemic, highlighted this necessity to teach people.

How do you cooperate as a state institution with citizens and other societal actors?

We are building a norm around data that is social sector first – neither public sector first, which would mean state surveillance and authoritarian intelligence, nor private sector dominated, which would mean surveillance capitalism and the dependence on multinational companies. We always put people first in people, public, private partnerships.

What is the responsibility of citizens in this crisis?

We appealed to the rational self-interest of the citizens. When you say: Wear a mask to protect yourself from your own unwashed hand, this is universally applicable. When you say: Wear a mask to protect the elderly then people who don't live with elderly people or frankly don't care will not wear a mask. When we say: Wear a mask to respect each other, then people who don't want to respect each other wouldn’t wear a mask. Right? Individualism in light of self-interest is actually collectively speaking a better strategy than appealing to collectivism.

Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

everybody's business needs everybody's help.

Thank you.

Thank you. Live long and prosper.

Audrey Tang is the Digital Minister of Taiwan.

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