In Germany, we are, of course, very envious how Taiwan handled the situation. At the same time, there’s a large discussion in Germany now on the question of digitalization and digital rights. And our app hasn’t worked that well.
I know it’s hard to put that in a sentence, but if you would have to describe your efforts in fighting the pandemic, how would you describe the moment that you started the strategy that apparently seem to work now for Taiwan? What was the moment…?
We played the SARS playbook that we made in 2004 while the memory of the 2003 SARS was still fresh. We institutionalized all these measures, including the constitutionality of the various measures into the laws, the yearly drills, and things like that.
This time around, we just played the SARS playbook. We did not invent any new data collection points during the pandemic. We reused what we had before so that people understand the cybersecurity and privacy parameters. We fought it with no lockdown because we remember how bad the lockdown was in 2003 for the Ho Ping Hospital.
We did not have to declare a state of emergency constitutionally because order or authority is already imbued in the Communicable Disease Control Act by the legislature in 2004 and the constitutional court’s interpretation in 2011. It’s not quite a single sentence. It’s a run on sentence, but I hope you got the idea.
Anyone entering Taiwan are subject to 14 days of quarantine. They could do it at their own homes or at a quarantine hotel. In either case, their phone is tracked for those 14 days using the triangulation method.
The controversy was initially about whether people can get an adequate explanation of the data process flow. People were legitimately afraid that this information will be retained, or it will be used for, I don’t know, tax purposes, or advertisement purpose, [laughs] or whatever other purposes.
In the parliamentary hearing — there’s a public hearing about this thing — the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Cybersecurity gave an adequate explanation of how exactly the system works. The approval rating raised right after that, from 91 percent to 94 percent. We still thank the six percent because they keep us honest.
That’s fine. We’ll give you one. Just keep it with you for the 14 days. We also pay you around a €100 a day as a stipend. If you break out of the quarantine, [laughs] you pay us back a thousand times, up to.
No. It’s just a phone. The phone is used not just to track their whereabouts, but also…By the way, when I say triangulation, I mean it in a very coarse grained manner. The resolution is about 50 radius, 50 meters.
We know roughly which block you’re in. We do not know, for example, which room you’re in, which would be much more invasive. Because it’s triangulation based, it only knows the signal strength. It has no way to, for example, eavesdrop into your calls or reach your WhatsApp or whatever.
In other words, the phone is a bidirectional communication device. Every day, we also check in via SMS or other instant messaging. People also are asked to feedback what they feel about the quarantine process. Is there anything we can improve on, their temperature, how they’re feeling, and things like that. It’s not just for tracking. It’s also for communication and care.
Is there any form of cooperation when it comes to private public partnerships? How is that managed? In Germany, many people are fearing that — this is a broader topic — that the public sector is more and more vampirized by private companies and their interests.
When it comes to health care in Germany, we have a problem that many services have been privatized over the last 20 years. Formerly state owned hospitals have been privatized. The services have been adopted more to ideas of efficiency than ideas of caring for the people and ideas of helping the people.
Hospitals, if you want to say informatic way, have been turned into asset machines and privatized. Now, in some cases, the German health system is overwhelmed because it cannot offer that supply that’s needed to fight the pandemic. We see a shortage of certain material, of doctors. Care workers have been paid so badly over the last 20 years.
How is the Taiwanese state dealing with the situation that many private companies are trying to take over the health sector? What is, to your view, the future of health care in the situation of when it comes to the question what is private and what is public? How do private and public access cooperate?
Constitutionally, we put in a constitutional amendment that said explicitly that universal health care is something the state must provide. [laughs] It’s a very clear thing on the constitutional level that health, much like basic education, need to be applied with equity.
In 2003, when SARS hit Taiwan, we had a control group and experiment group of the main Taiwan Island still using paper based health cards. The clinics do not have their electronic records synchronized.
Versus the Pescadores, the Penghu Island which, at a time when SARS came in 2003, was running a pilot of everybody having an IC card, like a digital identity card but for health care only, not for any other non public service purpose, and the electronic records are synchronized. Everybody saw what a difference it makes.
Fast forward to COVID 19, we’re seeing not only is all clinics and pretty much all the hospitals, but more than 90 percent of pharmacies even have high speed, fiber optic direct line to the NHIA. That enable us to track in real time, publish every 30 seconds like a distributed ledger would the real time mask availability.
Next week, the same goes for the vaccine. Vaccination available spots, reservations, everything is in this one single app that you can very easily access and more than 10 million downloads in the past year alone. The app exists already before the COVID. The telecoms already know your whereabouts anyway in order to provide roaming service before the COVID.
We have this ongoing heuristic that we do not invent new data collection points during the pandemic because that will make trust much harder to build. Reusing existing blocks of infrastructure is the key to the Taiwan model.
I would encourage Germany as well as any other country right after the vaccination and herd immunity, do what we did in 2004, which is look at whatever people did wrong this time and institutionalize the corrections into the law and into the yearly drills.
Are you working with a team of coders who organize this reuse of data that you described? How do you choose them? Where have they been studying? Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts in terms of coders?
Sure. I call it reverse procurement because it’s their demand, and we’re the persons who need to fulfill their demands. It’s not like traditional procurement. What we usually see is that when people see there’s a shortcoming in the digital service that the government provides, in Taiwan, there’s this idea called forking the government.
Taking the government websites ending in gov.tw, and then building alternatives ending in g0v.tw, the o to 0 digital transformation. [laughs] You can do it in a browser bar gets you into the alternative imagination, the civic tech version of the state digital services.
For example, in the mask availability case, it’s literally just a person in Tainan City coding up it overnight, letting people tag each place where a mask is sold, and tag it whether it’s out of mask or whether it still has some. It’s a crowdsourcing.
We talk to the civic hackers. We fulfill their data demands. If they say updating daily, the numbers are too slow, then we switch to updating every 30 seconds. If they say that a map is not the preferred method for many people who prefer chatbots, we also look into what the chatbot developers demand.
Within just the first couple of weeks, there’s more than 100 different teams developing on the same open API platform and working with the front line pharmacies. They also have a lot of data quality demands, like the opening hour for collecting numbers and trading those numbers back for the mask. They ask it to be two different date fields in the API.
We use a very agile method where all the new suggestions are triaged and then deployed next Thursday. We always say next Thursday because that’s when we deploy a new version. It’s a correlational process. It’s not a procurement process. There’s more than 100 different teams co creating in real time on a select channel.
I want to come back to that point. You said when it comes to privacy issues, you say you track the area, the block, but not the room. That is a remarkable decision. It’s not a natural given. Somebody must have decided that. What was the process to say, “This is the way to track people?” How did it become a political reality? Whom do you discuss that with?
That’s the resolution that the telecoms need to provide roaming. Using the signal strength, the nearby three cell phone towers measured by signal strength, so you have three circles. Your phone is at a place where those three circles overlap.
There’s a lot of variables in the signal strength measurement. It could be blocked by walls and things like that. The best they can do is around 50 meters resolution. That’s in the very densely populated urban areas with a lot of telecom towers, the best they can do is this.
It’s sufficient because people receive evacuation warnings, flood warnings, earthquake advance warnings using the same mechanism of a SMS sent by geolocation. If there is an earthquake in the Northern Taiwan, people in South Taiwan will not receive this evacuation warning. People already know how this works roughly.
That’s a conscious decision because of the heuristic of no new data collection points during pandemic. It’s also a political necessity. If we do anything new, we have to go back to the legislature and ask for approval and permission because we did not declare a state of emergency. Anything new that we do need a pre approval from the legislators.
It prompts us to reuse existing innovations for the appropriate configuration instead of coming up with whole new ideas, because that would need both legislature approval and also cybersecurity and privacy auditing, which takes time.
In many countries, the pandemic is seen also as a test model for much far fetched ambitions in the digitization of a society. At the same time, we have a rising preoccupation with the fact that data is generated by the people and should be owned by the people.
What is Taiwan’s position in that discussion? How do you reconcile these ambitions of private companies to use the data of activists, and politicians, and the civic society to keep in position or, practically speaking, to reclaim data? What is the endpoint in the discussion on the reclaimed data movement?
In Taiwan for example, the Taiwanese equivalent of Reddit, indeed the forum where, in December 31st, 2019, when Doctor Liu announced a message about “seven new SARS cases in the Huanan seafood market,” get circulated and alerted Taiwan to the fact that there is SARS coming again. Within 24 hours, we start house inspections and so on.
All this triageing happened on PTT, not through coincidence, but because PTT is in the social sector. It’s not public or private sector. It’s literally a pet project of National Taiwan University students running for 25 years now.
It’s entirely open source, co governed only by its participants. It doesn’t have any other stakeholders other than its participants. Compared to Reddit itself or other social media, the PTT doesn’t have a shareholder group. It doesn’t have advertisers. It doesn’t have any for profit interest, but neither is it a state organ.
It’s firmly in the social sector, much like how mature journalism is. Journalism is in the social sector, serving the society but not the government. This is important that we see civic infrastructure operated by the social sector. In many jurisdictions, people are still referring to the social sector as volunteers, third sector, whatever as if it’s the diminutive one.
In Taiwan, we believe this is the primary one. The social sector is the primary sector. Then, only after that comes the governance and economic interests. This powerful norm is the key behind what we call the people public private partnerships where the social sector first set the norm around, say, disinformation, infodemic, and so on.
Then they hold the public sector to account so that we have a public campaign donation expenditure, structured data. It also holds the private sector to account so that anti social part of social media can’t get a lot of targeted advertisement patterns and so on and profit from our elections.
This norm is not set by either the public or private sector but by the social sector that then hold both other sectors to account. This shape is necessary if we are going to co govern and build useful data coalitions from the social sector principal. It’s like turning existing co op movements but turning it into a digital equivalent.
I remember the discussion that we had in Barcelona when…tried to interface the…who controlled data flow back to telecommunication companies, they were not happy. It has been a fight to convince companies that they still work profitably, in a profitable way. People have more chances to control what is done with their data.
What we’re seeing here is that as long as there’s an outside game, like the work in open government in Taiwan, while it has the broad support of all the four major parties, indeed all of them signed on the open parliament’s plan, or the fact that people understand all the mayors have to pay at least lip service.
That’s the implicit outside game of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. The same goes to, say, Facebook, which, back in 2019, agreed to the same PTT initiated counter disinformation standards and banning foreign influence in the election season advertisements.
They do that not because they’re particularly friendly to Taiwan, even though Taiwan is the first jurisdiction that they did that, but because they know if they don’t do that, they will face social sanction.
Social sanction is much stronger, just like the consumer boycotting from the consumer rights movement. it’s actually much stronger than any law that the state could do. If the states make a law, they can file appeals. They can circumvent this law and redesign their algorithm to fulfill the ledger by non disparate.
It’s working very well. It’s working very, very well. We have this one stop shop, join.gov.tw, which is both a citizens’ petition website but also a participatory budget website. It’s also the visualization of life cycle of long term projects, 2,000 or so of them, by the ministries.
This is really this whole lifecycle thing. It makes me very happy that I mentioned the NHI app has around 10 million downloads in a country of 23 million. That’s a lot of people. The Join platform has a similar number of visitors. The citizens’ initiatives, more than a quarter of them are started by people who are not even 18 years old.
It’s part of the basic education curriculum that people learn about digital competence, about media competence, and not just literacy. Literacy is the kids reading and watching what the adults made and maybe have some critical thinking exercises.
Competence is they are the storytellers. They are the persons who say, “Let’s ban plastic straws from bubble tea takeouts. Let’s make sure that the high schoolers have adequate hours of sleep by adjusting the schedule. Let’s ensure that the reduced carbon footprint is mandatory in all the government sponsored banquets, and dinners,” and things like that.
They have a lot of very good ideas. They can take it to the Join platform without going on strike on Fridays and then get guaranteed support and feedback if they collect more than 5,000 signatures. This crowdsource agenda setting translated this energy, the useful energy for the positive change for society and build intergenerational solidarity.
We see on the platform the most active age groups are around 16, 17, and then 70, 60. These two age groups care the most about sustainability, or they just have more time on their hands. [laughs] Then they can tend to get into natural alliances that effects policy change.
Conversely, within the government, we have in each ministry so called participation officers who engage these emergent movements like hashtags and so on. Unlike media officers or a parliamentary officer who talk to specific journalists or MPs, these participation officers just talk to those emerging initiatives, and meet with them and co create solutions.
Public sphere has always had, let’s say, a physical component. People would meet in marketplaces. The city was, of course, a construct of rooms and of spaces where people could meet and gather. Also, Taiwan has, in many fields, a big appetite of creating new forms of social spaces in cities.
I’m very interested also, Minister, your office is part of that change. In your country, also town planners and architects are designing a new form of public life together with people who…digitalization.
Definitely. We usually follow a hybrid model where the agenda, the discovery phase, like who are the stakeholders, what are the facts, are done online. When you move to the feeling stage, like how we feel about all this, what’s this common feeling that could resonate with people, we do a little bit of open space technology online using Polis, polis.gov.tw.
Polis only generate this rough consensus. To go over the finer details, we always meet face to face. That’s what I refer to as collaborative meetings. We go to where people are. We are not asking people to come to Taipei, the capital. Sometimes it involves so many ministries that they can’t all travel. Usually, the core team travels.
Then we connect through videoconference and bring in, in the Social Innovation Lab, the 12 or so ministries related to this particular matter and connect the spaces together so that the local people get their response from the appropriate competent authority, not waiting for a couple of weeks for a written response but in the here and now.
Everybody see each other eye to eye ish [laughs] using videoconferencing. Taiwan has broadband as human rights anywhere, no matter how remote, you’re guaranteed to have 10 megabits per second sufficient for this kind of broadband connection for just €16 per month.
This universal broadband access and the digital competence in basic and lifelong education, these two enable us to do digital democracy without excluding people, without creating an associated digital gap, because we bring these connected spaces to where people are instead of asking them to use a keyboard or something.
That’s also a chance to think in a new way of the relation of cities and countryside. The countryside, when it comes to digitalization, always had been disconnected from certain technical requisites to enable people to stay there and still have a good Internet connection in the countryside. Is there a program that try to…the chances of digitalization for rural spaces?
That’s actually our 5G slogan. We designed the spectrum auctions such that in order to get the spectrum allocation, they have to pay a lot of premium, which are then reinvested back to the countryside, to rural places, specifically on the access to health and access to learning which, as I explained, is not capitalist.
This prompts the startups who want to deliver telehealth or tele education and many other things, telecare, to develop things that are essentially subsidized by the 5G spectrum auction money and realize its social impact without having a clear business model of how it could finance itself.
It could first just use the subsidized money and prove that it has social impact. Then you will attract social investors, impact investors because they understand that in order to fulfill the healthcare goals, in order to fulfill the learning goals, it’s cheaper to do it this way rather than the analog way.
Digital, even if expensive, is a fraction of the cost compared to concrete, like literally made out of concrete [laughs] public infrastructure to enable this kind of things. We do have a very vibrant ecosystem working on this.
Every year, the top five ideas get a trophy from the president. There’s a projector. When you turn it on, it projects the president handing out a trophy, promising whatever you did in that remote place in the past three months will become national policy in the next 12 months. It’s executive power as Hackathon award. That’s also very popular.
We saw dramatic shifts of local populations into larger agglomerations everywhere in the world. Japan has a problem to maintain rural populations, also the elderly people there. Is, in Taiwan, anything happening where you could describe that already the relation between city and countryside is changing with the help of digital policy?
One of the most important things here is to ensure that people who want to maintain a dual life, like maybe three or four days a week in the cities and three or four days a week in the rural places, make sure that if they want to do so, they can do so while supporting their families, their children, the elderly, and so on. That’s the main measurement.
The National Development Council has been measuring that. The main KPI is not set by the central government, but rather we have this deliberative model where each district, each region can set their own KPIs of what they want to attract.
Some places want to transform education so that their indigenous culture can be kept within the indigenous nation without getting the younger people going into the ethnic Han areas and then forgetting about the indigenous cultures in the most important years in their lives.
I don’t think there is one size fits all KPI, but we have a meta KPI that each region, each district, each rural area can declare what’s important to them, and, through the regional revitalization platform, gets the resource they want and they need.
Usually it’s the young people as defined by 35 years old or younger, who can then get to there and stay an extended amount of years, win the popular support locally, and then connect to the citywide or even planetwide communities.
If you want to look at the KPIs, they are in the regional revitalization page in the NDC, but it’s very detailed and it’s per county. I don’t know whether there could be any useful [laughs] simplification out of it, but it’s really a more community building approach, a social sector approach rather than a top down approach.
Yeah, it’s a weird western concept. The term we use, translated back would be wise cities, I guess. [laughs] We sometimes say smart citizens, though. [laughs] I think smart cities, to me, means smart citizens. That is, the citizens are empowered through their right to see how to make sure the city works with them, not just for them.
This very social sector view of the smart city, understand, is not the dominant narrative. Unfortunately, 聰明城市, the direct translation of smart city never caught on in Taiwan. By saying wisdom and wise cities, everybody understands about connecting people to people, not connecting machine to machines, which seems to be what some western smart city people are talking about.
If you look into these plans for Europe, digitalization in Europe also means turning cities into so called smart cities. It’s quite disturbing to see what is proposed under the banner of comfort and security, and how certain ideas of liberty and self determination are wiped out from the map with that seeming necessity to connect everything to the public benefit.
I’m interested if you have a dystopic view of the world to see, on the one hand, a dis enablement of public governance through private companies lodged in America, which is sold as a smart city concept, and you see in other states a very authoritarian, state driven idea of surveillance city.
Again, maybe you can put that in a nutshell. What is Taiwan’s third way between an idea of a society that is depicted in a smart city run by private companies and, on the other side, by a state driven surveillance system? How would …Taiwan’s position in that?
A lot of it is in the language, in the words, as you put it, like smart cities and human resource. To me, this is a perversion of categories. [laughs] If you say city resources or smart humans, that makes sense to me, but a smart city, human resource doesn’t really work.
To answer your question directly, in Taiwan, all digitalization follows the roadmap of the DIGI+ plan, D I G I, which is digitization. That’s the infrastructure part. Innovation, that’s the part about the co creation of emerging technologies. Governance, which is about this social sector first, norm first approach in data governance.
Then inclusion, which is the ultimate goal, which is to give voice to unmute the young people, the foreign immigrants, the generations yet to be born, the rivers and mountains who didn’t have a voice in the democratic process, to include them in the democratic process.
I would say this digitization, innovation, governance, inclusion roadmap is based on the idea of a social sector first approach. Social sector first could be the tagline of what we’re doing here, which is why we call it the digital social innovation, which means it’s everyone’s business, so we need everyone’s help.
This perversion of categories is in my job description. I tackled it by saying, “When we see Internet of Things, let’s make it Internet of Beings. When we see virtual reality, let’s make a shared reality,” and so on.
An inevitable question always is what would be an advice to countries like Germany in the situation there now with the digitalization but also with digital public tools like health apps and corona apps?
That must be maybe also an annoying question to you. It works so well in Taiwan. It’s interesting to hear what would be your advice for the EU, for example, how to manage that situation with corona apps? Is there anything where you would say this works in Taiwan so well that you would propose that could be applied in Germany, for example?
It goes back to Habermas, which is where the idea of the public sphere came from. I think we all agree, in the Democratic polities, that is, there needs to be freedom of assembly, associations about matters of general interest, and so on, to form public opinion. There’s no theoretical opposition to any of that.
On a practical level, in Taiwan, it took us quite a few years. It’s not until 2016 did we, in our infrastructure bill, for the first time classified digital infrastructure as public infrastructure. Previously, in order to access infrastructure money, it has to be concrete, like made out of concrete.
For the first time, we say, as long as in the creative commons, as long as it could be reused by everyone, as long as this has a positive impact of citizen’s access and competence, then it’s also public infrastructure, much like national parks, museums, and public libraries.
If we do not allocate a budget for debt and leave it to the economic sector, then there is no way to ensure that they will work in a prosocial way. There is no guarantee that they will make sure that the deliberation over the general rules governing social relations is honored.
Then we will end up having a political conversation in the digital equivalent of a very loud nightclub where people have to shout to get heard, where expensive addictive drinks are served, where private bouncers can bounce people out.
The number one suggestion is just to treat civic infrastructure, even in the digital realm, as worthy of the same investment as its analog counterparts. They’re intertwined. They’re hybrid connected spaces and need to be cultivated as such.
If people get into the habit of getting their democratic input not just three bits, every four years, every person, which is called voting, but rather literally every day but through micro engagement, like only maybe signing on a petition, voting using quadratic voting, our Presidential Hackathon.
It’s like five bits, seven bits, every day. More and more people understand that it’s all the citizens that has access that collectively co create governing rules in the society. Then you have a true public sphere. Otherwise, it may be public, but it’s not shaped like a sphere.
When we talk about public life in cities or in the countryside, if we talk about public buildings, it comes always to theaters and museums, etc., and all these new typologies where our data is stored and managed, like the server farms, are hidden somewhere in towers or in the countryside, in anonymous buildings.
I always ask myself if you want to educate a new generation that understands technically what’s going on, what hacking means, what digitalization means. It’s not only the Internet that is a place of information on what digitalization means, but you can also imagine new spaces where you explain to people how a server farm works.
I always wondered why there is no tour, why there’s no public server farm where school classes can be toured, but also where politicians can go and understand what does it mean if I agree in giving away a certain amount of data somewhere.
A bigger problem today is that many people do not understand the technical foundations of that process. Do you think it would be important to have a building where people could actually learn that? There is not a central Pompidou for the digital age or a public server farm where people go to.
Definitely. When I was a primary school student, eight years old, there was a class where people are asked in a class to each raise a silkworm until it forms a cocoon. That’s taught me a lot about life cycles of animals, much more than any textbook could. That’s competence versus just literacy.
In the same way, the primary schoolers in Taiwan are encouraged to have a cocoon of Airbox of PM2.5 and other weather sensing devices talking over NB IoT, or LoRa, or Sigfox, and writing into these civil ledgers to assess the climate impacts and air pollution impacts of whatever mobile, immobile sources.
It’s not until you co own a data collection box where the GDPR concepts start to make sense. If you don’t have a first hand experience as a data controller, none of the GDPR principles make sense because they’re written from the data controller’s perspective, to be honest.
If you do operate that or if you do participate in the data collectives on water quality, on disinformation management, on fact checking the three presidential candidates debating [laughs] in real time, then people understand how journalism works, how data journalism works, how media works.
People become empowered because they then see these tools as nothing but prototypes. They can just mix and match the open recipes. We ensure that they are taught with free software, meaning that they can change however they like, not getting vendor lock in, but also have access to the state of the art supercomputer cluster.
The National Center for High Speed Computation offers this cloud GPU access to pretty much any high school student. This, combined with universal broadband access, made sure that people are raised thinking that technology is here to serve the society rather than thinking the society need to adapt to fit technology, which is a fundamentally mistaken view.
Personally? I read about programming languages. I was very interested in mathematics but not at all in math. That’s not in calculations. [laughs] I drew a paper computer on the A4 paper using pencils and erasers and start programming that paper. [laughs]
After a while, my parents got me a personal computer, and then I started programming. A lot of the early work that I did was about education games, teaching fractionals, using bubbles […] and things like that, more like shaping how social interactions happen for pedagogical purposes.
Later on, I would drop out of middle school because I would tell the head of the school that there’s this new thing called the World Wide Web. All the interesting researches are published on it, and nobody knows I’m just 14. [laughs]
I can go and do research 16 hours a day or I can be trapped in our school half of that time. Then the head of my school just said, “OK, tomorrow you don’t have to go to school anymore.” [laughs] I guess it instilled in me this optimism that career public servants are the most innovative people.
Long story short, I was raised when the World Wide Web was new and a lot of those early energy about end to end innovation, meaning that if you don’t like how the browser works, you change the browser, that’s still with me.
Fantastic. I could go on for hours, but that is exactly the amount of text that we can publish. I’m very happy and excited about it, of course. It’s really great. I hope we can continue the conversation at some point in Taiwan. I would love to come and maybe to meet then.