Audrey Tang: Very happy to be joining you, and good local time, everyone.
David Biello: So, tell us about — Sorry to — Tell us about digital tools and COVID.
AT: Sure. Yeah, I'm really happy to share with you how Taiwan successfully countered the COVID using the power of digital democracy tools. As we know, democracy improves as more people participate. And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation, as long as the focus is on finding common ground, that is to say, prosocial media instead of antisocial media. And there's three key ideas that I would like to share today about digital democracy that is fast, fair and fun.
First about the fast part. Whereas many jurisdictions began countering coronavirus only this year, Taiwan started last year. Last December, when Dr. Li Wenliang, the PRC whistleblower, posted that there are new SARS cases, he got inquiries and eventually punishments from PRC police institutions. But at the same time, the Taiwan equivalent of Reddit, the Ptt board, has someone called nomorepipe reposting Dr. Li Wenliang's whistleblowing. And our medical officers immediately noticed this post and issued an order that says all passengers flying in from Wuhan to Taiwan need to start health inspections the very next day, which is the first day of January.
And this says to me two things. First, the civil society trusts the government enough to talk about possible new SARS outbreaks in the public forum. And the government trusts citizens enough to take it seriously and treat it as if SARS has happened again, something we've always been preparing for, since 2003. And because of this open civil society, according to the CIVICUS Monitor after the Sunflower Occupy, Taiwan is now the most open society in the whole of Asia. We enjoy the same freedom of speech, of assembly, [unclear] as other liberal democracies, but with the emphasis on keeping an open mind to novel ideas from the society. And that is why our schools and businesses still remain open today, there was no lockdown, it's been a month with no local confirmed cases.
So the fast part. Every day, our Central Epidemic Command Center, or CECC, holds a press conference, which is always livestreamed, and we work with the journalists, they answer all the questions from the journalists, and whenever there's a new idea coming in from the social sector, anyone can pick up their phone and call 1922 and tell that idea to the CECC.
For example, there was one day in April where a young boy has said he doesn't want to go to school because his school mates may laugh at him because all he had is a pink medical mask. The very next day, everybody in the CECC press conference started wearing pink medical masks, making sure that everybody learns about gender mainstreaming. And so this kind of rapid response system builds trust between the government and the civil society.
And the second focus is fairness. Making sure everybody can use their national health insurance card to collect masks from nearby pharmacies, not only do we publish the stock level of masks of all pharmacies, 6,000 of them, we publish it every 30 seconds. That's why our civic hackers, our civil engineers in the digital space, built more than 100 tools that enable people to view a map, or people with blindness who talk to chat bots, voice assistants, all of them can get the same inclusive access to information about which pharmacies near them still have masks. And because the national health insurance single payer is more than 99.9 percent of health coverage, people who show any symptoms will then be able to take the medical mask, go to a local clinic, knowing fully that they will get treated fairly without incurring any financial burden. And so people designed a dashboard that lets everybody see our supply is indeed growing, and whether there's over- or undersupply, so that we codesign this distribution system with the pharmacies, with the whole of society.
So based on this analysis, we show that there was a peak at 70 percent, and that remaining 20 percent of people were often young, work very long hours, when they go off work, the pharmacies also went off work, and so we work with convenience stores so that everybody can collect their mask anytime, 24 hours a day. So we ensure fairness of all kinds, based on the digital democracy's feedback.
And finally, I would like to acknowledge that this is a very stressful time. People feel anxious, outraged, there's a lot of panic buying, a lot of conspiracy theories in all economies. And in Taiwan, our counter-disinformation strategy is very simple. It's called "humor over rumor." So when there was a panic buying of tissue paper, for example, there was a rumor that says, "Oh, we're ramping up mass production, it's the same material as tissue papers, and so we'll run out of tissue paper soon." And our premier showed a very memetic picture that I simply have to share with you. In very large print, he shows his bottom, wiggling it a little bit, and then the large print says "Each of us only have one pair of buttocks." And of course, the serious table shows that tissue paper came from South American materials, and medical masks come from domestic materials, and there's no way that ramping up production of one will hurt the production of the other. And so that went absolutely viral. And because of that, the panic buying died down in a day or two. And finally, we found out the person who spread the rumor in the first place was the tissue paper reseller.
And this is not just a single shock point in social media. Every single day, the daily press conference gets translated by the spokesdog of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, that translated a lot of things. For example, our physical distancing is phrased as saying "If you are outdoors, you need to keep two dog-lengths away, if you are indoor, three dog-lengths away," and so on. And hand sanitation rules, and so on. So because all this goes viral, we make sure that the factual humor spreads faster than rumor. And they serve as a vaccine, as inoculation, so that when people see the conspiracy theories, the R0 value of that will be below one, meaning that those ideas will not spread.
And so I only have this five-minute briefing, the rest of it will be driven by your Q and A, but please feel free to read more about Taiwan's counter-coronavirus strategy, at taiwancanhelp.us. Thank you.
DB: That's incredible. And I love this "humor versus rumor." The problem here in the US, perhaps, is that the rumors seem to travel faster than any response, whether humorous or not. How do you defeat that aspect in Taiwan?
AT: Yeah, we found that, of course, humor implicitly means there is a sublimation of upsetness, of outrage. And so as you see, for example, in our premier's example, he makes fun of himself. He doesn't make a joke at the expense of other people. And this was the key. Because people think it hilarious, they share it, but with no malicious or toxic intentions. People remember the actual payload, that table about materials used to produce masks, much more easily. If they make a joke that excludes parts of the society, of course, that part of society will feel outraged and we will end up creating more divisiveness, rather than prosocial behavior. So the humor at no expense, not excluding any part of society, I think that was the key.
DB: It's also incredible because Taiwan has such close ties to the origin point of this.
AT: PRC, yes.
DB: The mainland. So given those close economic ties, how do you survive that kind of disruption?
AT: Yeah, I mean, at this moment, it's been almost a month now with no local confirmed cases, so we're doing fine. And what we are doing, essentially, is just to respond faster than pretty much anyone. We started responding last year, whereas pretty much everybody else started responding this year. We tried to warn the world last year, but, anyway. So in any case, the point here is that if you start early enough, you get to make sure that the border control is the main point where you quarantine all the returning residents and so on, instead of waiting until the community spread stage, where even more human-right invading techniques would probably have to be deployed one way or the other.
And so in Taiwan, we've not declared an emergency situation. We're firmly under the constitutional law. Because of that, every measure the administration is taking is also applicable in non-coronavirus times. And this forces us to innovate. Much as the idea of "we are an open liberal democracy" prevented us from doing takedowns. And therefore, we have to innovate of humor versus rumor, because the easy path, the takedown of online speech, is not accessible to us.
Our design criteria, which is no lockdowns, also prevented us from doing any, you know, very invasive privacy encroaching response system. So we have to innovate at the border, and make sure that we have a sufficient number of, for example, quarantine hotels or the so-called "digital fences," where your phone is basically connected to the nearby telecoms, and they make sure that if they go out of the 15-meter or so radius, an SMS is sent to the local household managers or police and so on. But because we focus all these measures at the border, the vast majority of people live a normal life.
DB: Let's talk about that a little bit. So walk me through the digital tools and how they were applied to COVID.
AT: Yes. So there's three parts that I just outlined. The first one is the collective intelligence system. Through online spaces that we design to be devoid of Reply buttons, because we see that, when there's Reply buttons, people focus on each other's face part, not the book part, and without "Reply" buttons, you can get collective intelligence working out their rough consensus of where the direction is going with the response strategies. So we use a lot of new technologies, such as Polis, which is essentially a forum that lets you upvote and downvote each other's feelings, but with real-time clustering, so that if you go to cohack.tw, you see six such conversations, talking about how to protect the most vulnerable people, how to make a smooth transition, how to make a fair distribution of supplies and so on.
And people are free to voice their ideas, and upvote and downvote each other's ideas. But the trick is that we show people the main divisive points, and the main consensual points, and we respond only to the ideas that can convince all the different opinion groups. So people are encouraged to post more eclectic, more nuanced ideas and they discover, at the end of this consultation, that everybody, actually, agrees with most things, with most of their neighbors on most of the issues. And that is what we call the social mandate, or the democratic mandate, that then informs our development of the counter-coronavirus strategy and helping the world with such tools.
And so this is the first part, it's called listening at scale for rough consensus. The second part I already covered is the distribute ledger, where everybody can go to a nearby pharmacy, present their NHI card, buy nine masks, or 10 if you're a child, and see the stock level of that pharmacy on their phone actually decreasing by nine or 10 in a couple of minutes. And if they grow by nine or 10, of course, you call the 1922, and report something fishy is going on. But this is participatory accountability. This is published every 30 seconds. So everybody holds each other accountable, and that massively increases trust.
And finally, the third one, the humor versus rumor, I think the important thing to see here is that wherever there's a trending disinformation or conspiracy theory, you respond to it with a humorous package within two hours. We have discovered, if we respond within two hours, then more people see the vaccination than the conspiracy theory. But if you respond four hours or a day afterwards, then that's a lost cause. You can't really counter that using humor anymore, you have to invite the person who spread those messages into cocreation workshops. But we're OK with that, too.
DB: Your speed is incredible. I see Whitney has joined us with some questions.
Whitney Pennington Rodgers: That's right, we have a few coming in already from the audience. Hi there, Audrey. And we'll start with one from our community member Michael Backes. He asks how long has humor versus rumor been a strategy that you've implemented. Excuse me. "How long has humor versus rumor strategy been implemented? Were comedians consulted to make the humor?"
AT: Yes, definitely. Comedians are our most cherished colleagues. And each and every ministry has a team of what we call participation officers in charge of engaging with trending topics. And it's a more than 100 people-strong team now. We meet every month and also every couple of weeks on specific topics. It's been like that since late 2016, but it's not until our previous spokesperson, Kolas Yotaka, joined about a year and a half ago, do the professional comedians get to the team. Previously, this was more about inviting the people who post, you know, quotes like "Our tax filing system is explosively hostile," and gets trending, and previously, the POs just invited those people. Everybody who complains about the finance minister's tax-filing experience gets invited to the cocreation of that tax filing experience. So previously, it was that. But Kolas Yotaka and the premier Su Tseng-chang said, wouldn't it be much better and reach more people if we add some dogs to it or cat's pictures to it? And that's been around for a year and a half.
WPR: Definitely, I think it makes a lot of difference, just even seeing them without being part of the thought process behind that. And we have another question here from G. Ryan Ansin. He asks, "What would you rank the level of trust your community had before the pandemic, in order for the government to have a chance at properly controlling this crisis?"
AT: I would say that a community trusts each other. And that is the main point of digital democracy. This is not about people trusting the government more. This is about the government trusting the citizens more, making the state transparent to the citizen, not the citizen transparent to the state, which would be some other regime. So making the state transparent to the citizens doesn't always elicit more trust, because you may see something wrong, something missing, something exclusively hostile to its user experience, an so on, of the state. So it doesn't necessarily lead to more trust from the government. Sorry, from the citizen to the government. But it always leads to more trust between the social sector stakeholders.
So I would say the level of trust between the people who are working on, for example, medical officers, and people who are working with the pandemic responses, people who manufacture medical masks, and so on, all these people, the trust level between them is very high. And not necessarily they trust the government. But we don't need that for a successful response. If you ask a random person on the street, they will say Taiwan is performing so well because of the people. When the CECC tells us to wear the mask, we wear the mask. When the CECC tells us not to wear a mask, like, if you are keeping physical distance, we wear a mask anyway. And so because of that, I think it's the social sector's trust between those different stakeholders that's the key to the response.
WPR: I will come back shortly with more questions, but I'll leave you guys to continue your conversation.
DB: Well, clearly, part of that trust in government was maybe not there in 2014 during the Sunflower Movement. So talk to me about that and how that led to this, kind of, digital transformation.
AT: Indeed. Before March 2014, if you asked a random person on the street in Taiwan, like, whether it's possible for a minister — that's me — to have their office in a park, literally a park, anyone can walk in and talk to me for 40 minutes at a time, I'm currently in that park, the Social Innovation Lab, they would say that this is crazy, right? No public officials work like that. But that was because on March 18, 2014, hundreds of young activists, most of them college students, occupied the legislature to express their profound opposition to a trade pact with Beijing under consideration, and the secretive manner in which it was pushed through the parliament by Kuomintang, the ruling party at the time. And so the protesters demanded, very simply, that the pact be scraped, and the government to institute a more transparent ratification process. And that drew widespread public support.
It ended a little more than three weeks later, after the government promised and agreed on the four demands [unclear] of legislative oversight. A poll released after the occupation showed that more than 75 percent remained dissatisfied with the ruling government, illustrating the crisis of trust that was caused by a trade deal dispute. And to heal this rift and communicate better with everyday citizens, the administration reached out to the people who supported the occupiers, for example, the g0v community, which has been seeking to improve government transparency through the creation of open-source tools. And so, Jaclyn Tsai, a government minister at the time, attended our hackathon and proposed the establishment of novel platforms with the online community to exchange policy ideas.
And an experiment was born called vTaiwan, that pioneerly used tools such as Polis, that allows for "agree" or "disagree" with no Reply button, that gets people's rough consensus on issues such as crowdfunding, equity-based crowdfunding, to be precise, teleworking and many other cyber-related legislation, of which there is no existing unions or associations. And it proved to be very successful. They solved the Uber problem, for example, and by now, you can call an Uber — I just called an Uber this week — but in any case, they are operating as taxis. They set up a local taxi company called Q Taxi, and that was because on the platform, people cared about insurance, they care about registration, they care about all the sort of, protection of the passengers, and so on. So we changed the taxi regulations, and now Uber is just another taxi company along with the other co-ops.
DB: So you're actually, in a way, crowdsourcing laws that, well, then become laws.
AT: Yeah, learn more at crowd.law. It's a real website.
DB: So, some might say that this seems easier, because Taiwan is an island, that maybe helps you control COVID, helps promote social cohesion, maybe it's a smaller country than some. Do you think that this could be scaled beyond Taiwan?
AT: Well, first of all, 23 million people is still quite some people. It's not a city, as some usually say, you know, "Taiwan is a city-state." Well, 23 million people, not quite a city-state. And what I'm trying to get at, is that the high population density and a variety of cultures — we have more than 20 national languages — doesn't necessarily lead to social cohesion, as you said. Rather, I think, this is the humbleness of all the ministers in the counter-coronavirus response. They all took on an attitude of "So we learned about SARS" — many of them were in charge of the SARS back then, but that was classical epidemiology. This is SARS 2.0, it has different characteristics. And the tools that we use are very different, because of the digital transformation. And so we are in it to learn together with the citizens.
Our vice president at the time, Dr. Chen Chien-jen, an academician, literally wrote the textbook on epidemiology. However, he still says, "You know, what I'm going to do is record an online MOOC, a crash course on epidemiology, that shares with, I think, more than 20,00 people enrolled the first day, I was among them, to learn about important ideas, like the R0 and the basic transmission and how the various different measures work, and then they asked people to innovate. If you think of a new way that the vice president did not think of, just call 1922, and your idea will become the next day's press conference.
And this is this colearning strategy, I think, that more than anything enabled the social cohesion, as you speak. But this is more of a robust civil society than the uniformity. There's no uniformity at all in Taiwan, everybody is entitled to their ideas, and all the social innovations, ranging from using a traditional rice cooker to revitalize, to disinfect the mask, to pink medical mask, and so on, there's all variety of very interesting ideas that get amplified by the daily press conference.
DB: That's beautiful. Now — oh, Whitney is back, so I will let her ask the next question.
WPR: Sure, we're having some more questions come in. One from our community member Aria Bendix. Aria asked, "How do you ensure that digital campaigns act quickly without sacrificing accuracy? In the US, there was a fear of inciting panic about COVID-19 in early January."
AT: This is a great question. So most of the scientific ideas about the COVID are evolving, right? The efficacy of masks, for example, is a very good example, because the different characteristics of previous respiratory diseases respond differently to the facial mask. And so, our digital campaigns focus on the idea of getting the rough consensus through. So basically, it's a reflection of the society, through Polis, through Slido, through the joint platform, the various tools that vTaiwan has prototyped, we know that people are feeling a rough consensus about things and we're responding to the society, saying, "This is what you all feel and this is what we're doing to respond to your feelings.
And the scientific consensus is still developing, but we know, for example, people feel that wearing a mask mostly protects you, because it reminds you to not touch your face and wash your hands properly." And these, regardless of everything else, are the two things that everybody agrees with. So we just capitalize on that and say, "OK, wash your hands properly, and don't touch your face, and wearing a mask reminds you of that." And that lets us cut through the kind of, very ideologically charged debates and focus on what people generally resonate with one another. And that's how we act quickly without sacrificing scientific accuracy.
WPR: And this next question sort of feels connected to this as well. It's a question from an anonymous community member. "Pragmatically, do you think any of your policies could be applied in the United States under the current Trump administration?"
AT: Quite a few, actually. We work with many states in the US and abroad on what we call "epicenter to epicenter diplomacy." (Laughs) So what we're doing essentially is, for example, there was a chat bot in Taiwan that lets you, but especially people under home quarantine, to ask the chat bot anything. And if there is a scientific adviser who already wrote a frequently asked question, the chat bot just responds with that, but otherwise, they will call the science advisory board and write an accessible response to that, and the spokesdog would translate that into a cute dog meme.
And so this feedback cycle of people very easily accessing, finding, and asking a scientist, and an open API that allows for voice assistance and other third-party developers to get through it, resonates with many US states, and I think many of them are implementing it. And before the World Health Assembly, I think three days before, we held a 14 countries [unclear] lateral meeting, kind of, pre-WHA, where we shared many small, like, quick wins like this. And I think many jurisdictions took some of that, including the humor versus rumor. Many of them said that they're going to recruit comedians now.
WPR: (Laughs) I love that.
DB: I hope so.
WPR: I hope so too. And we have one more question, which is actually a follow-up, from Michael Backes, who asked a question earlier. "Does the Ministry plan to publish their plans in a white paper?" Sounds like you're already sharing your plans with folks, but do you have a plan to put it out on paper?
AT: Of course. Yeah, and multiple white papers. So if you go to taiwancanhelp.us, that is where most of our strategy is, and that website is actually crowdsourced as well, and it shows that more than five million now, I think, medical masks donated to the humanitarian aid. It's also crowdsourced. People who have some masks in their homes, who did not collect the rationed masks, they can use an app, say, "I want to dedicate this to international humanitarian aid," and half of them choose to publish their names, so you can also see the names of people who participated in this. And there's also an "Ask Taiwan Anything" website,
at fightcovid.edu.tw, that outlines, in white paper form, all the response strategies, so check those out.
WPR: Great. Well, I will disappear and be back later with some other questions.
DB: A blizzard of white papers, if you will. I'd like to turn the focus on you a little bit. How does a conservative anarchist become a digital minister?
AT: Yeah, by occupying the parliament, and through that.
More interestingly, I would say that I go working with the government, but never for the government. And I work with the people, not for the people. I'm like this Lagrange point between the people's movements on one side and the government on the other side. Sometimes right in the middle, trying to do some coach or translation work. Sometimes in a kind of triangle point, trying to supply both sides with tools for prosocial communication. But always with this idea of getting the shared values out of different positions, out of varied positions. Because all too often, democracy is built as a showdown between opposing values.
But in the pandemic, in the infodemic, in climate change, in many of those structural issues, the virus or carbon dioxide doesn't sit down and negotiate with you. It's a structural issue that requires common values built out of different positions. And so that is why my working principle is radical transparency. Every conversation, including this one, is on the record, including the internal meetings that I hold. So you can see all the different meeting transcripts in my YouTube channel, in the SayIt platform, where people can see, after I became digital minister, I held 1,300 meetings with more than 5,000 speakers, with more than 260,000 utterances. And every one of them has a URL that becomes a social object that people can have a conversation on.
And because of that, for example, when Uber's David Plouffe visited me to lobby for Uber, because of radical transparency, he is very much aware of that, and so he made all the arguments based on public good, based on sustainability, and things like that, because he knows that the other sides would see his positions very clearly and transparently. So that encourages people to add on each other's argument, instead of attacking each other's person, you know, credits and things like that. And so I think that, more than anything, is the main principle of conserving the anarchism of the internet, which is about, you know, nobody can force anyone to hook to the internet, or to adhere to a new internet protocol. Everything has to be done using rough consensus and running code.
DB: I wish you had more counterparts all around the world. Maybe you wish you had more counterparts all around the world.
AT: That's why these ideas are worth spreading.
DB: There you go. So one of the challenges that might arise with some of these digital tools is access. How do you approach that part of it for folks maybe who don't have the best broadband connection or the latest mobile phone or whatever it might be that's required?
AT: Well, anywhere in Taiwan, even on the top of Taiwan, almost 4,000 meters high, the Saviah, or the Jade Mountain, you're guaranteed to have 10 megabits per second over 4G or fiber or cable, with just 16 US dollars a month, an unlimited plan. And actually, on the top of the mountain, it's faster, fewer people use that bandwidth. And if you don't, it's my fault. It's personally my fault. In Taiwan, we have broadband as a human right. And so when we're deploying 5G, we're looking at places where the 4G has the weakest signal, and we begin with those places in our 5G deployment. And only by deploying broadband as a human right can we say that this is for everybody. That digital democracy actually strengthens democracy. Otherwise, we would be excluding parts of the society.
And this also applies to, for example, you can go to a local digital opportunity center to rent a tablet that's guaranteed to be manufactured in the past three years, and things like that, to enable, also, the different digital access by the digital opportunity centers, universities and schools, and public libraries, very important. And if people who prefer to talk in their town hall, I personally go to that town hall with a 360 recorder, and livestream that to Taipei and to other municipalities, where the central government's public servants can join in a connected room style, but listening to the local people who set the agenda. So people still do face-to-face meetings, we're not doing this to replace face-to-face meetings. We're bringing more stakeholders from central government in the local town halls, and we're amplifying their voices by making sure the transcripts, the mind maps, and things like that are spread through the internet in real time, but we don't ever ask the elderly to, say, "Oh, you have to learn typing, otherwise you don't do democracy." It's not our style. But that requires broadband. Because if you don't have broadband, but only a very limited bandwidth, you are forced to use text-based communication.
DB: That's right. Well, with access, of course, comes access for folks who maybe will misuse the platform. You talked a little bit about disinformation and using humor to beat rumor. But sometimes, disinformation is more weaponized. How do you combat those kinds of attacks, really?
AT: Right, so you mean malinformation, then. So essentially, information designed to cause intentional public harm. And that's no laughing matter. So for that, we have an idea called "notice and public notice." So this is a Reuters photo, and I will read the original caption. The original caption says "A teenage extradition bill protester in Hong Kong is seen during a march to demand democracy and political reform in Hong Kong." OK, a very neutral title by the Reuters. But there was a spreading of malinformation back last November, just leading to our presidential election, that shows something else entirely. This is the same photo — that says "This 13-year-old thug bought new iPhones, game consoles and brand-name sports shoes, and recruiting his brothers to murder police and collect 200,000 dollars." And this, of course, is a weapon designed to sow discord, and to elicit in Taiwan's voters a kind of distaste for Hong Kong.
And because they know that this is the main issue. And had we resorted to takedowns, that will not work, because that would only evoke more outrage. So we didn't do a takedown. Instead, we worked with the fact checkers and professional journalists to attribute this original message back to the first day that it was posted. And it came from Zhongyang Zhengfawei. That is the main political and legal unit of the central party, in the Central Communist Party, in CCP. And we know that it's their Weibo account that first did this new caption. So we sent out a public notice and with the partners in social media companies, pretty much all of them, they just put this very small reminder next to each time that this is shared with the wrong caption, that says "This actually came from the central propaganda unit of the CCP. Click here to learn more. To learn about the whole story."
And that, we found, that has worked, because people understand this is then not a news material. This is rather an appropriation of Reuters' news material and a copyright infringement and I think that's part of the [unclear]. In any case, the point is that when people understand that this is an intentional narrative, they won't just randomly share it. They may share it, but with a comment that says "This is what the Zhongyang Zhengfawei is trying to do to our democracy."
DB: Seems like some of the global social media companies could learn something from notice and public notice.
AT: Public notice, that's right.
DB: What advice would you have for the Twitters and Facebooks and LINEs and WhatsApps, and you name it, of the world?
AT: Yeah. So, just before our election, we said to all of them that we're not making a law to kind of punish them. However, we're sharing this very simple fact that there is this norm in Taiwan that we even have a separate branch of the government, the control branch, that published the campaign donation and expense. And it just so occurred to us that in the previous election, the mayoral one, there was a lot of candidates that did not include any social media advertisements in their expense to the Control Yuan. And so essentially, that means that there is a separate amount of political donation and expense that evades public scrutiny. And our Control Yuan published their numbers in raw data form, that is to say, they're not statistics, but individual records of who donated for what cause, when, where, and investigative journalists are very happy, because they can then make investigative reports about the connections between the candidates and the people who fund them.
But they cannot work with the same material from the global social media companies. So I said, "Look, this is very simple. This is the social norm here, I don't really care about other jurisdictions. You either adhere to the social norm that is set by the Control Yuan and the investigative journalists, or maybe you will face social sanctions. And this is not the government mandate, but it's the people fed up with, you know, black box, and that's part of the Sunflower Occupy's demands, also. And so Facebook actually published in the Ad Library, I think at that time, one of the fastest response strategies, where everybody who has basically any dark pattern advertisement will get revealed very quickly, and investigative journalists work with the local civic technologists to make sure that if anybody dare to use social media in such a divisive way, within an hour, there will be a report out condemning that. So nobody tried that during the previous presidential election season.
DB: So change is possible.
WPR: Hey there, we have some more questions from the community. There is an anonymous one that says, "I believe Taiwan is outside WHO entirely and has a 130-part preparation program — developed entirely on its own — to what extent does it credit its preparation to building its own system?"
AT: Well, a little bit, I guess. We tried to warn the WHO, but at that point — we are not totally outside, we have limited scientific access. But we do not have any ministerial access. And this is very different, right? If you only have limited scientific access, unless the other side's top epidemiologist happens to be the vice president, like in Taiwan's case, they don't always do the storytelling well enough to translate that into political action as our vice president did, right? So the lack of ministerial access, I think, is to the detriment of the global community, because otherwise, people could have responded as we did in the first day of January, instead of having to wait for weeks before the WHO declared that this is something, that there's definitely human to human transmission, that you should inspect people coming in from Wuhan, which they eventually did, but that's already two weeks or three weeks after what we did.
WPR: Makes a lot of sense.
DB: More scientists and technologists in politics. That sounds like that's the answer.
WPR: And then we have another question here from Kamal Srinivasan about your reopening strategy. "How are you enabling restaurants and retailers to open safely in Taiwan?"
AT: Oh, they never closed, so ... (Laughs)
AT: Yeah, they never closed, there was no lockdown, there was no closure. We just said a very simple thing in the CECC press conference, that there's going to be physical distancing. You maintain one and a half meters indoors or wear a mask. And that's it. And so there are some restaurants that put up, I guess, red curtains, some put very cute teddy bears and so on, on the chairs, to make sure that people spread evenly, some installed see-through glass or plastic walls between the seats. There's various social innovations happening around. And I think the only shops that got closed for a while, because they could not innovate quick enough to respond to these rules, was the intimate escort bars. But eventually, even they invented new ways, by handing out these caps that are plastic shielding, but still leaves room for drinking behind it. And so they opened with that social innovation.
DB: That's amazing.
WPR: It is, yeah, it's a lot to learn from your strategies there. Thank you, I'll be back towards the end with some final questions.
DB: I'm very happy to hear that the restaurants were not closed down, because I think Taipei has some of the best food in the world of any city that I've visited, so, you know, kudos to you for that. So the big concern when it comes to using digital tools for COVID or using digital tools for democracy is always privacy. You've talked about that a little bit, but I'm sure the citizens of Taiwan are perhaps equally concerned about their privacy, especially given the geopolitical context.
DB: So how do you cope with those demands?
AT: Yeah, we design with not only defensive strategy, like minimization of data collection, but also proactive measures, such as privacy-enhancing technologies. One of the top teams that emerged out of our cohack, the TW response from the Polis, how to make contact tracing easier, focused not on the contact tracers, not on the medical officers, but on the person. So they basically said, "OK, you have a phone, you can record your temperatures, you can record your whereabouts and things like that, but that is strictly in your phone. It doesn't even use Bluetooth. So there's no transmission. Technology uses open-source, you can check it, you can use it in airplane mode. And when the contact tracer eventually tells you that you are part of a high-risk group, and they really want your contact history, this tool can then generate a single-use URL that only contains the precise information, anonymized, that the contact tracers want.
But it will not, like in a traditional interview, let you ask — they ask a question, they only want to know your whereabouts, but you answer with such accuracy that you end up compromising other people's privacy. So basically, this is about designing with an aim to enhance other people's privacy, because personal data is never truly personal. It's always social, it's always intersectional. If I take a selfie at a party, I inadvertently also take pretty much everybody else's who are in the picture, the surroundings, the ambiance, and so on, and if I upload it to a cloud service, then I actually decimate the bargaining power, the negotiation power of everybody around me, because then their data is part of the cloud, and the cloud doesn't have to compensate them or get their agreement for it.
And so only by designing the tools with privacy enhancing as a positive value, and not enhancing only the person's own privacy, just like a medical mask, it protects you, but mostly it also protects others, right? So if we design tools using that idea, and always open-source and with an open API, then we're in a much better shape than in centralized or so-called cloud-based services.
DB: Well, you're clearly living in the future, and I guess that's quite literal, in the sense of, it's tomorrow morning there.
AT: Twelve hours.
DB: Yes. Tell me, what do you see in the future? What comes next?
AT: Yes, so I see the coronavirus as a great amplifier. If you start with an authoritarian society, the coronavirus, with all its lockdowns and so on, has the potential of making it even a more totalitarian society. If people place their trust, however, on the social sector, on the ingenuity of social innovators, then the pandemic, as in Taiwan, actually strengthens our democracy, so that people feel, truly, that everybody can think of something that improves the welfare of not just Taiwan, but pretty much everybody else in the world.
And so, my point here is that the great amplifier comes if no matter you want it or not, but the society, what they can do, is do what Taiwan did after SARS. In 2003, when SARS came, we had to shut down an entire hospital, barricading it with no definite termination date. It was very traumatic, everybody above the age of 30 remembers how traumatic it was. The municipalities and the central government were saying very different things, and that is why after SARS, the constitutional courts charged the legislature to set up the system as you see today, and also that is why, when people responding to that crisis back in 2003 built this very robust response system that there's early drills.
So just as the Sunflower Occupy, because of the crisis in trust let us build new tools that put trust first, I think the coronavirus is the chance for everybody who have survived through the first wave to settle on a new set of norms that will reinforce your founding values, instead of taking on alien values in the name of survival.
DB: Yeah, let's hope so, and let's hope the rest of the world is as prepared as Taiwan the next time around. When it comes to digital democracy, though, and digital citizenship, where do you see that going, both in Taiwan and maybe in the rest of the world?
AT: Well, I have my job description here, which I will read to you. It's literally my job description and the answer to that question. And so, here goes. When we see the internet of things, let's make it the internet of beings. When we see virtual reality, let's make it a shared reality. When we see machine learning, let's make it collaborative learning. When we see user experience, let's make it about human experience. And whenever we hear the singularity is near, let us always remember the plurality is here. Thank you for listening.
DB: Wow. I have to give that a little clap, that was beautiful.
Quite a job description too. So, conservative anarchist, digital minister, and with that job description — that's pretty impressive.
AT: A poetician, yes.
DB: (Laughs) So I struggle to imagine an adoption of these techniques in the US, and that may be my pessimism weighing in. But what words of hope do you have for the US, as we cope with COVID?
AT: Well, as I mentioned, during SARS in Taiwan, nobody imagined we could have CECC and a cute spokesdog. Before the Sunflower movement, during a large protest, there was, I think, half a million people on the street, and many more. Nobody thought that we could have a collective intelligence system that puts open government data as a way to rebuild citizen participation. And so, never lose hope. As my favorite singer, Leonard Cohen — a poet, also — is fond of saying, "Ring the bells that still can ring and forget any perfect offering. There is a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in."
WPR: Wow. That's so beautiful, and it feels like such a great message to, sort of, leave the audience with, and sharing the sentiment that everyone seems to be so grateful for what you've shared, Audrey, and all the great information and insight into Taiwan's strategies.
AT: Thank you.
WPR: And David —
DB: I was just going to say, thank you so much for that, thank you for that beautiful job description, and for all the wisdom you shared in rapid-fire fashion. I think it wasn't just one idea that you shared, but maybe, I don't know, 20, 30, 40? I lost count at some point.
AT: Well, it's called Ideas Worth Spreading, it's a plural form.
DB: Very true. Well, thank you so much for joining us.
WPR: Thank you, Audrey.
DB: And I wish you luck with everything.
AT: Thank you, and have a good local time. Stay safe.