Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang Highlights Opportunities in Social Innovation
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, March 26, 2021 — Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) hosted Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister in charge of social innovation, in conversation with Martyn E. Goossen, Vice Chairman of J.P. Morgan Private Bank and ASTC vice chair. They discussed Taiwan‘s successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the role technology played in the response, as well as how technology is being used to drive social innovation for offscreen impact in Taiwan.
Audrey Tang and the path to digital ministry
The relatively unconventional digital ministry of Taiwan reflects the unusual personal journey that Tang took to becoming its minister at age 35. Tang is the first non-binary and transgender individual to be appointed as a minister in Taiwan. Described as a “child prodigy,” Tang said they began programming at the age of 10 and started their first company at the age of 15, dropping out of middle school to pursue interests in technology. They said they were able to make up the remainder of their education through informal means.
Driven by the 2014 Sunflower Protest movement that saw the collective coordination of millions of voices into “four demands, not one less,” Taiwan initially invited Tang and others to participate as “reverse mentors” for existing ministers, then in 2016 founded the digital ministry and appointed Tang as its minister. Though the digital ministry currently draws its fulltime employees from other ministries, Tang said it is slated to become a full ministry within the next year, meaning approximately 1,000 people including 100 external experts from civil society will become part of its staff.
Using technology to combat COVID-19
Tang noted that creative use of technology was one of the ways that Taiwan was able to avoid the widespread toll of the pandemic that many other nations experienced. They explained that Taiwan, informed by the disastrous experience of the SARS outbreak in 2003, calculated how many medical supplies would be needed to avoid a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 within its borders and, consequently, a lockdown. Based on this, Taiwan was able to produce the number of masks needed, becoming the second largest producer of medical grade masks behind China. According to Tang, Taiwan also used a mobile phone app to distribute masks, enforce quarantine for individuals potentially afflicted by COVID-19, and create a clear line of communication with the population.
Tang stressed that, in addition to the technology Taiwan used to monitor COVID-19 cases among its population, strict contact tracing rules were also key to isolating cases of the virus and preventing its spread. While this required the government to be proactive in monitoring the population, Tang also pointed to social innovation practices that would incentivize the public to buy into what is called “participatory self-surveillance” – essentially a willingness of the population at risk to voluntarily submit relevant data.
The role of government and technology
Though acknowledging the mixing of government and technology can often raise concerns among some about surveillance and privacy, Tang said their philosophy on the role of government is informed by the rule of 3 Fs, which stand for “Fast, Fair, and Fun.” Tang explained that “it’s about making the government worthy of trust and making sure that government trusts its citizens.”
Moreover, they stated that they do not believe that the use of technology in society has to be a zero-sum tradeoff where people have to choose between their privacy and being part of a larger system. Tang emphasized the importance for civic society to have access to social infrastructure, and how government can use technology for the public good.
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Lessons we can learn
In summary, Tang expressed the belief that technology can be used in constructive ways to improve the abilities of government and create an involved society. In differentiating from conventional uses of technology, Tang said that democratizing, not centralizing, technology and data will ultimately be the path to pursue: “When everybody gets into the mood of data stewardship, media competence, not just media literacy, then civil society can keep the government in check.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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We are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.
About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.
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