• We know Taiwan’s done a great job with the pandemic response. Can you tell us what Taiwan has excelled in the most?

  • Sure. The social sector mobilization is the most important. The social innovation that I referred to as the fast, fair, fun principle, these are the three pillars that we have done the best.

  • The fast one is essentially 24-hour turnaround when there’s daily CECC, Center Epidemic Command Center, press conferences, where anyone with any new idea can just pick up their phone and call 1922 – that’s the hotline with a very high, like 90 percent, immediate pickup rate – and tell their idea, like there’s a boy who refused to go to school because all he has is pink medical mask.

  • Then the very next day, everybody in the CECC press conference started wearing pink medical masks. That’s this fast turnaround cycle that essentially build a collective intelligence. That’s the most important.

  • Taiwan suffered immensely during the SARS pandemic. How do you think that experience has informed our current response?

  • Certainly I think everybody above 30 years living in Taiwan still remembers how chaotic it was. There was no Central Epidemic Command Center. The national government and the municipal government were saying very different things, and we had to barricade one of our hospitals unannounced. We decided that 37 people dead is 37 people too many.

  • Because of that, not only the CECC was instated because of that but also the constitutional court ruling that said that barricading of the hospital, although constitutional, is strongly not preferred, and it charges the parliament to find a way within the constitutional limit to find more alternative ways.

  • That’s what led to, say, the digital fence and other advanced technologies that are still operating in the constitutional limit of privacy and so on because we’ve never declared an emergency state.

  • Speaking about the different measures that we took, can you tell us a little bit more about cell phone tracing and how that worked? I know in the US for example…

  • That’s the digital fence. If you’re a returning resident, at the moment you have two choices. First you can go to a quarantine hotel where you’re physically barred from leaving for 14 days, but we pay you 33 US dollars per day stipend for your effort.

  • If your home is large enough and you don’t live with one or more people, then you can also choose to be home quarantined, in which case we simulate this kind of physical barricading using your phone which you’re addicted to anyway…

  • …and use the cell phone tower signals that we’re already collecting from the telecoms to basically send an SMS as soon as that breaks out of the 15 meter or so perimeter. That simulates the same kind of quarantining or barricading as the physical one, but it’s less restricting as the physical one of course.

  • When people choose this home-quarantine method, the police or the local household managers receive an SMS right away when their phone runs out of battery or when it moves out of the radius.

  • It’s on their actual personal phone, right?

  • That’s right. If you don’t have a phone, of course, we can lend you a phone also for 14 days.

  • Cool. This one’s not on the script, but I was actually curious because you recently signed the IDEA Democracy thing.

  • Can you tell us more about that?

  • Sure. IDEA is an international organization. The call to defend democracy is that witnessing that in many authoritarian regimes they looked at the pandemic and say this is great because then we can justify our more draconian measures. There’s a false dichotomy between the freedom, liberal democracy on one side and the health on the other side.

  • In Taiwan, we actually strengthened democracy by working on the pandemic in a way that’s grassroots, that allows for everybody to participate and allow for social innovation that feed back into the decision-making cycle. Because of that, people feel even more participatory instead of less, and because we’ve never imposed a lockdown.

  • We’ve never imposed a takedown either for online speech. That’s another thing that authoritarian regimes loves to use as a excuse because of pandemic, because their social order. We have to justify the takedowns. Taiwan doesn’t do that either. Taiwan is a shining example of how to enhance liberal democracy during the pandemic and afterwards.

  • Thank you. You did talk a little bit about grassroots efforts on the part of the Taiwanese people. Can you share with us a little more of what Taiwanese have done to help the government during this pandemic?

  • To help each other. [laughs]

  • To help each other, yeah.

  • In Taiwan, what we’re saying is that the government should be accountable to people. The government should be transparent to people. We’re not asking the people to be transparent to the government. The CECC have resisted a lot of requests to publish the travel history of confirmed cases.

  • Because of that, people are more willing to just take some medical mask and go to a local clinic when they develop symptoms, knowing that because our healthcare system is single-payer system, they will not run into any social or financial pressure when they basically report their contact history for the past 14 days.

  • This is essential. If we make people feel unsafe to report themself to a local clinic, then the contact tracers will miss the window to do the contact tracing. I would argue that it’s people’s willingness to trust each other and people’s willingness to trust the health insurance system and also using the health insurance system to do a lot of creative things

  • For example, the mask map thing that people develop, it’s a grassroots thing that allows everybody to see how many masks are there in stock in each pharmacy and which pharmacies are queuing a lot, which pharmacies doesn’t queue that much, and so. All these are developed by civic technologists, that is say people who on it in the open instead of as a contractor or something.

  • Basically, these were hackers or independent programmers who…

  • They call themselves civic technologists. At the end, at least one of them, Howard Wu, Wu Chang Wei, started referring to himself as a civil engineer, which is…

  • …interesting because that term, we usually say civil engineer only for people who build bridges or highways. In a sense, because his map has been used by more than 10 million individuals in Taiwan, when half of the population use your software, you might as well be a civil engineer.

  • (laughter)

  • Basically, we can see that in Taiwan people are very willing to work with the government because we guarantee the privacy of the individual citizen.

  • In the US, for example, or in other Western countries, we see a lot of people refusing to collaborate with the government because of their personal rights or what they perceive as a violation of privacy. How do you think Taiwan has dealt with this?

  • We minimize the data that we collect, as with the digital phones. We actually do not collect any extra data. We’re not asking anyone to install any app on their phone, for example. That signal level strength of the cell phone tower, that’s what’s already collected by the major telecoms.

  • There will be less misunderstanding if people understand who exactly is collecting, for how long it’s retained. After 14 days, we have no constitutional basis to still make use of that data. Of course, all that data is going to be erased and so on.

  • All of this is clearly communicated, not only to the parliament but to everyday people, because in the CECC press conference, it’s the ask-me-anything format. Whenever any journalist asks any question, the Commander Chen as well as everybody in the CECC just answers very matter-of-factly.

  • Once you have that collective intelligence feedback cycle plus the spokesdog, the Zongchai, which always translates the CECC answers into very cute dog memes…

  • (laughter)

  • …that also reaches a lot of people. It’s not only fast and fair. It’s also fun. When you have all the three pillars, mutual trust is much more possible.

  • Tell me a little bit about the data that we collect to figure out where people are during this quarantine.

  • Certainly. It’s called cell phone tower triangulation. In your phone, if you see three bars out of five, it means that you have a medium signal strength to your nearest cell phone tower.

  • Actually, it talks to other cell phone towers as well. Once you have the three nearest cell phone towers, each with its own signal strength, we can draw three circles. Once you draw three circles, there’s going to be one intersection only. That’s where your phone is.

  • This is superior to GPS in two regards. First, GPS is very fine resolution. In home quarantine terms, GPS would enable the state know which room you are in. Cell phone tower triangulation is, at most, 50 meter radius.

  • It knows which block you are, or if you break out of quarantine, which block you are not in. That’s the first thing, is that it’s not as privacy-damaging as GPS. The second is that to collect GPS, it requires you to install an app.

  • Cell phone tower signal, that’s something that the major telecom providers already collect, anyway. They basically just agreed to run this notification algorithm, which is not unlike, for example, after an earthquake, it sends you automatically an SMS, a cell broadcast, “Watch out for a landslide,” or things like that.

  • That’s existing technology we can already use, and people are already getting used, to receive those SMS. It’s not a brand new technological stack that you have to vet independently again.

  • Basically, we’re using preexisting data that is already being widely collected, and then just reusing that data in a way that we can help our pandemic prevention?

  • Right. Instead of a landslide danger area, we just basically say, “Your home quarantine area is such a geofence,” which is why it’s called a digital fence.

  • Cool. It’s the same all around the world? Other countries, other telecom companies are also collecting this data already?

  • Yeah, but in Taiwan, I think what’s important is that we already have an earthquake and typhoon warning system that we…It’s not a drill. We have real earthquakes and typhoons pretty much every year.

  • It’s something that the major telecoms are very comfortable working with already. If you don’t have such an emergency cell broadcast SMS system, then of course, building that from scratch would require more effort.

  • Nice. I’m trying to think, basically, we’re using these methods that are preexisting to help our pandemic efforts. If other countries wanted to adopt similar measures, what would you suggest?

  • First of all, I think technology, it’s not just digital technology. I must still say that soap is the most important technology.

  • Everything builds on top of soap. Of course, soap prevents a lot of transmission vectors, but it doesn’t prevent yourself from your own hands. That’s where mask becomes useful.

  • In Taiwan, we bill masks as something that protects the wearer’s health by protecting me from my own hands, and also by reminding me that I need to wash my hands thoroughly with this kind of lyric, 內外夾弓大立腕, or something that everybody memorizes how to wash your hands properly.

  • Then it’s also a social signal so that I can tell other people, “Oh, you should take care of yourself more. Wear a mask to protect you from yourself.” That makes this kind of mask-wearing easier to spread than, “You should wear a mask to protect me.” That’s harder to convince people.

  • Because of that, I think, on top of soap and mask, and then comes other digital technologies that make sure that people use soaps and mask correctly and responsibly. These two, and social distancing – or nowadays, we call it physical distancing – are also necessary.

  • What advice would you have for other leaders around the world so that their citizens don’t have to endure a lockdown or a shelter-in-place?

  • Two messages. Don’t panic, and Taiwan Can Help. By don’t panic, I mean just look at our communication material. It’s not that the Doge, the dog meme, says anything about the actual content. It’s mostly just the packaging. It does give out a calm and reassured air of the official communications, because people are stressful enough during a pandemic.

  • If a leader’s communication style, just like our commander, Chen Chien-jen, when people asked him sometimes very provocative questions, he always responds with this attitude of, “Oh, you should have told me this sooner. Oh, let us work on this together. Oh, I don’t know about it. Maybe we can learn from each other.”

  • He always fields this in a very Zen way, and that reassures everybody watching the live-streamed CECC press conference. Adopting that kind of very calm, and sometimes also humorous, communication style can really help.

  • The second, of course, check out taiwancanhelp.us, which is a playbook of the Taiwan model. It contains not only the material help that we can offer in addition to the mask donations, we are now also exporting the blueprints of the factories that you can basically make two million mask a day with plenty of materials left for doing other PPEs.

  • It’s all automatic, like 24 hours a day. That’s one of the main exports of Taiwan now. You can reach out to these technological vendors, as well as people who are pretty much working on the mask distribution map and things like that.

  • They are all open source, so you don’t really have to ask for Taiwan’s permission before deploying similar technologies, like our chat bot, 疾管家, which is extremely popular. We see many epicenters now adopting an ask a scientist chat bot, designed more or less along the same lines of people voice their concerns, their worries.

  • Then, in very easy-to-understand format, a chat bot answers their worries and things like that. You can take pieces of Taiwan model. Each one will help, but I think at the end, it is about communication style.

  • Basically, how you say something is just as important, or more important, than what you’re saying?

  • Right. I think the state need to maximally enable self-organization. That is to say, if you answer questions in a way that makes everybody feel like, “Oh, I am part of this. I can mobilize,” instead of an us-versus-the-state zero-sum game, it makes it a kind of puzzle that we’re all puzzling out together. That is the root of social innovation.

  • Basically, we want to empower citizens to be able to work with lawmakers to find a solution together?

  • That’s right, that’s right. Basically, work “with the people,” and even “after the people,” instead of “for the people” only.

  • Are there countries that have taken advantage of the resources that you were speaking about?

  • Yeah, the open source. For example, the first mask availability map that got running in South Korea, I think a month after we got ours running, is from Tainan. Its author, 江明宗, doesn’t even speak Korean language, but he speaks JavaScript. That’s what counts.

  • (laughter)

  • Basically, the South Korean people, the civic technologist took the Taiwan model and managed to convince their government that publishing every day the stock level of the pharmacies’ availability of masks is not enough.

  • You need to publish every 30 seconds, just like Taiwan did. They managed to successfully convince them of that. That led to a direct application. Now, we’re using this Korean-improved version in our triple stimulus voucher map as well, starting tomorrow.

  • It’s really international collaboration.

  • Nice. Are there any other countries? I know you mentioned that the blueprints are now online and everything. Is that being put to use?

  • Sure. I think at least six countries have reached Champ Mask for the blueprints and also for the technical expertise that they’re willing to transfer it to their local manufacturers, so that they can also own their national mask production line, much as Taiwan did at the beginning of the pandemic.

  • That’s already in the talks, but because it’s business sector, you probably have to ask Champ Mask, not me. The blueprint of the code, though, for example, the Tokyo dashboard, that’s another very interesting thing.

  • It’s made, again, not by the government, but by Code for Japan, which is roughly the same as g0v in Taiwan. Civic technologists, they think there is no single one-page summary of where the COVID development is at.

  • They volunteered to build one and convinced the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to lend them to the domain name of their municipal government. At the very beginning, the g0v project contributors helped translating these into Taiwanese Mandarin.

  • I also contributed just by fixing one typo in the Traditional Chinese word. They got a T wrong. I just sent a pull request as a civic contributor, not as a minister. Then it got accepted by the website operator, by Haruyuki Seki-san, the leader of Code for Japan which got retweeted by a civic counselor, which got retweeted by the Tokyo mayor.

  • It become kind of like diplomacy, but it’s not a first-track diplomacy. This is maybe zero-track diplomacy in the sense that we all contribute out in the open.

  • To date, that dashboard, the Stop COVID dashboard, has been forked, meaning made more than 1,000 or so different versions that powers different municipalities’ dashboards.

  • These are municipalities in Japan?

  • Cool. Can you explain a little bit what you mean by first-track and zero-track diplomacy?

  • Sure. In first-track diplomacy, professional diplomats talk to other jurisdictions, professional diplomats. Especially in the large, multilateral organizations this is traditionally what Taiwan basically always loses and emoting.

  • (laughter)

  • This is our memory ever since ‘71. Nowadays, what we call hybrid organizations of some multilateral representatives, but also multistakeholder representatives who represent, for example, any major groups that cares about privacy, any major group that cares about children rights and participation, and so on.

  • These can form their own seats in those multistakeholder communications. In these multistakeholder organizations, such as the Open Government Partnership or the one that we held, the pre-WHA, the 14-jurisdiction assembly that we assembled just a few days before the World Health Assembly, with higher bandwidth and better video, I guess.

  • (laughter)

  • These are what we call minilaterals. That is to say, it’s very focused, only work on one topic, maybe. Also, much more strict in its admission rules. For example, the Open Government Partnership only accepts jurisdictions that pass a certain threshold of liberal democratic values.

  • Based on these measures, Taiwan will be much more vocal and also contribute much more if we are in a minilateral and multistakeholder organization, and we look only to contribute to the world using the Sustainable Development Goals as a guide, instead of zero-sum voting games in very large multilaterals.

  • That pre-WHA, what countries were part of that?

  • There’s 14 different jurisdictions and economies. For the full list, please look at the MoHW’s website. I think the GCTF, which is the Global Collaboration and Training Framework, is always cohosted by Japan, Taiwan, and the US.

  • Depending on the topic, other jurisdictions as well. I think I’ve attended quite a few GCTFs in-person. The pre-WHA one, as well as the virtual GCTFs, I meet with ministerial levels that are much higher compared to traditional first-track, face-to-face representatives.

  • First, because of the sheer logistics involved, and also, before the pandemic, high-level officials aren’t very used to video conferencing. They usually send more junior officials if you insist to use video conferencing.

  • Because of the pandemic, everybody uses teleconferencing now. We get to meet very high-level people, and also, if you are on a video conference room, there’s no seats that are differentiating between member seats, observer seats, and civil society seats.

  • Everybody is just one rectangle in a wall of rectangles. That basically washes away a lot of the norms in the first-track diplomacy, in traditional face-to-face career diplomat diplomacy. This online, or track-zero, as I referred to, is much more free. Everybody basically just represent themselves.

  • You would say that the zero-track diplomacy is actually more efficient, then?

  • I’m guessing if you’re talking with higher-level ministers, then they’re actually in positions of power the way that they can actually affect policy and things like that.

  • That’s right. I think ministerial access is really what we’re looking at. In WHO, they keep saying that Taiwan has limited scientific access.

  • Unless your vice president at the time of the epidemic outbreak happens to be your top academician for epidemiology, literally wrote the textbook on epidemiology, having scientific access in Taiwan’s case is almost the same as having ministerial access.

  • Actually, better, because you have vice president access. In other jurisdictions, even if we get to talk to their top epidemiologist, it doesn’t mean that it necessarily translates to ministerial action. Ministerial access is really important. Track-zero, which is really just a tongue-in-cheek way to say digital diplomacy, I think is the key.

  • Do you ever run into troubles when you’re dealing with the higher-level ministers? I’m guessing that they’re not trained epidemiologists. Do you have issues with communicating with them in this way, or do you think it’s OK?

  • It’s OK. I think what’s important here is just to prove that it is impossible to enhance liberal democracy, to mobilize the social sector during the pandemic. Taiwan basically is like an existential proof that is it possible to further democracy while countering both the pandemic and also the infodemic.

  • After learning that such possibilities exist, of course, ministers are very creative people. They can marshal their own resources within their own jurisdiction.

  • Currently, in the world today, we still have cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, who are still experiencing high rates of mortality. Do you think that the Taiwan model is able to help places like this?

  • Yeah. We dedicated a lot of mask. By we, we mean Taiwanese citizens. If you go to taiwancanhelp.us, you can check out more than five million medical mask coming from, I think, 700,000 people now, half of which choose to reveal their names.

  • It’s really a gesture not just from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Taiwan, but also from the Taiwanese people. They have names, and you can look at them on taiwancanhelp.us.

  • For all the medical masks that we donate, and for all the masks we produce or help you to co-produce, it doesn’t work unless people wash their hands properly with soap or alcohol sprays. It doesn’t work unless people are willing to put on those masks.

  • I think the most important is that the creative messaging around mask use, so that people see it not as something like a duty that they have to fulfill to their neighbors, but rather something that just reminds themselves to not touch their mouth with unwashed hands.

  • If you can get that message through, I think it will save a lot of people.

  • Thanks so much for taking the time today. Really appreciate it. I think I got the answers that I came to look for. Thank you so much, Audrey, really appreciate it.

  • Great questions. Thank you.