"As Taiwan's First Digital Minister, I Was Asked To Write My Own Job Description"
A Conversation with Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan
ZURICH, November 8, 2021 — Audrey Tang, digital minister of Taiwan, talks about the island's digital response to Covid-19 and shares how Taiwan effectively countered fake news by tapping into popular meme culture. Tang also discusses strategies ensuring that the internet remains inclusive, and explains why retaining digital talent is not an issue for Taiwan. (49 min., 32 sec.)
Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, is in charge of social innovation, open government and youth engagement – with all things digital being the instrument to do so. Being Taiwan’s ever first Digital Minister, Audrey Tang (they/their) was asked to write their own job description – and for that actually composed a short poem. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Tang's task was to “counter Covid with no lockdown, and counter the infodemic with no takedown”. In their view, civic technologies have more creativity and legitimacy compared to the central government – and bridging their respective ideas is Tang's central task.
The event was held in collaboration with Zentrum Karl der Grosse and the Schweizerische Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft. The event was moderated by Nicola Forster, President of the Schweizerische Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft.
Our key takeaways
Throughout the pandemic, avoiding a lockdown was Taiwan’s paramount goal – in 2003, Taiwan experienced severe lockdowns during the Sars outbreak, and “nobody wanted to go back there”, says Audrey Tang. Taiwan quickly became aware of an outbreak of a novel virus in Wuhan – already on the first day of 2020, Taiwan was conducting health checks of flight passengers arriving from Wuhan.
During the pandemic – which Tang describes as a “twin-demic”: both a pandemic and an infodemic – a lot of disinformation and fake news was circulating in the internet. The idea was to provide a public dashboard which made it possible to “monitor the reproduction rate of (fake) news” – a tool similar to spam notifications. On average, the response to fake news took 16 minutes, but never more than 2 hours, says Tang. Another tactic, labelled "Humor over Rumor", was to tap into Taiwan’s meme culture and counter fake news by publishing cute photos of a Shiba Inu, a Japanese dog which is very popular in Taiwan, explaining the facts in a humorous way.
In order to effectively ration face masks, an interactive map was published to navigate people to places that still had masks available, by showing the real-time inventory numbers of around 6'000 pharmacies across Taiwan. Within a couple of months, a 75% mask coverage was achieved, and helped postpone the development of the pandemic for more than 10 months, with no locally acquired cases.
The “GovZero” initiative invented a digital solution for contact tracing: at every public venue, a QR code was hung up at the entrance. To enter, you simply needed to scan the QR code with your phone’s camera. A random 15 number digit, which represented the venue, would then be sent out in form of a text message to a trusted toll-free number. The whole process took no more than a couple of seconds, and there was no need to download any app. The messages could only be read by authorized ministries and were deleted every 28 days.
The internet (including Social Media) is neither good nor bad for democracy: it is simply the digital equivalent of local town halls and other physical infrastructure, and has in fact been classified in Taiwan as public infrastructure investment since 2016. Tang added that people in Taiwan still use Facebook (the “nightlife district”, as Tang called it), but that they do not use it for participatory budgeting and deliberation – for that, so-called “pro-social social media” is used, which is funded by, but not controlled by, the state.
Ensuring that the internet remains inclusive is a central concern. The key, says Tang, is to adapt new technologies to fit with what society is comfortable with, rather than asking society to adapt to new technologies.
By using small-scale technologies which were invented by social technologists, it is possible to effectively counter people’s fears of new technologies. The role of the government in this is to amplify these technologies on a national scale. By ensuring accountability along each step, it was possible to avoid the pitfall of centralizing decision-making power to a “black box” which only tech elites can understand, which is what happened in other parts of the world, says Tang.
Retaining digital talents is not an issue in Taiwan – the people who invented the "mask map" actually work as social entrepreneurs; the people who invented the text message-based contact tracing method are working in private sector jobs or in academia. Tang says there is no shortage of people from the likes of TSMC or media tech who take part in the GovZero hackathons – basically what they are doing is “donating their cognitive surplus”.
Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s digital minister in charge of Social Innovation. Tang is known for revitalizing the computer languages Perl and Haskell, as well as building the online spreadsheet system EtherCalc in collaboration with Dan Bricklin. In the public sector, Tang served on Taiwan national development council’s open data committee and the 12-year basic education curriculum committee; and led the country’s first e-Rulemaking project. In the private sector, Tang worked as a consultant with Apple on computational linguistics, with Oxford University Press on crowd lexicography, and with Socialtext on social interaction design. In the social sector, Tang actively contributes to g0v (“gov zero”), a vibrant community focusing on creating tools for the civil society, with the call to “fork the government.”