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Taipei bus riders wear masks to protect from coronavirus in February 2020. The country’s civic tech community built maps to help people find masks. (Jose Lopes Amaral/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

How open data and civic participation helped Taiwan slow Covid

The country’s digital platforms have led to community-driven tools that keep people safe — they also offer a model for open innovation moving forward.

Taiwan is being hailed for its strong and swift response to the coronavirus, and the case numbers support that praise. As of Thursday, Taiwan had 267 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with two deaths, despite having many travelers from mainland China, a population of 23 million people, and a very dense capital in Taipei. The New York Times reports that Taiwan has been particularly effective at limiting community spread of the virus.

Data has played a big role in that success. In a JAMA article from early March, a group of researchers report that the Taiwan government integrated national health and travel databases to help identify cases, made patient travel histories available to hospitals and clinics, used online reporting of travel history and symptoms to help classify infectious risk, and even monitored people in quarantine via cell phone.

Some of these efforts would no doubt raise flags in Europe or North America, but Taiwan’s approach to data hasn’t all been top-down. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl of Microsoft explain that, by making some Covid-related data publicly accessible, Taiwan empowered its civic tech community to create dozens of tools, including a popular map of mask availability. Lanier and Weyl argue that this bottom-up response has “been central to the country’s success”:

By communicating challenges faced by the government, rather than projecting an aura of invincibility, it encouraged a range of decentralized actors to contribute to solutions and build on official information.

Face mask maps

When SARS struck in 2003, Taiwan experienced a massive run on face masks. According to one retrospective, the shortage not only made it very tough for people to get masks — it led to hoarding, price-gouging, and general distrust in government response.

Having learned that lesson, officials quickly rationed masks when Covid struck: two per person per week, at a set price. That eased some nerves, but it still left people in the dark about where to acquire masks, creating the potential for long lines and crowding outside retailers. So the government released an open API with real-time data on mask availability, working closely with a civic tech community called g0v (pronounced “gov zero”).

The result was a surge of maps that helped people find a mask near them. An app called BuyFaceMask, which showed nearby mask distributors as well as how many masks remained at each location, got nearly 1 million inquiries on the first day of the ration, according to open interviews Lanier and Weyl published with the g0v community. Another app, called Face Mask Heatmap, helped people avoid lines using historical data on a retailer’s peak busy times.

As one g0v community member named Howard explained, face mask maps “helped ease people’s panic.” A week after the maps started to appear, analytics showed that people stopped checking them as much — a sign not of waning interest in masks but rather of waning anxiety around getting one. The community-driven effort helped people get information faster than they might have if the government had created one official map. And having many maps, rather than just one, made it less likely for any particular app to crash from too much traffic.

Working with entrepreneurs and the Digital Ministry, the g0v community contributed more than just face mask tools. Other innovations included an app that uses smartphone location data to help people determine whether they’d entered high-risk areas. To ensure privacy, the app had users download risk maps to their own local device, rather than uploading any personal information to the tool itself.

As Howard put it:

It’s not only the top-down policies and commands but also bottom-up self-awareness of “epidemic prevention is my own responsibility”.

When people have enough information and share the same goal, we have higher chances to conquer the virus.

“Open and broad participation”

If we let ourselves look beyond the current crisis for a moment, Taiwan’s open infrastructure has importance for all cities working to improve digital democracy. As with Barcelona’s digital initiatives, Taiwan’s g0v community offers a potential model for cities aiming to improve civic engagement and inspire new civic technology.

Founded in Taipei in 2012, g0v has some 4,000 participants, tech and non-tech alike, all working to create tools for the public good using open data. It has since spawned multiple platforms for civic participation, with direct lines of communication and impact to policymakers. These include a “Join” platform, overseen by the government to get input into budget matters, and a “vTaiwan” platform, maintained by g0v to facilitate large-scale, open public engagement around emerging legislation.

Such efforts have led to what Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, has called a “collaborative ecosystem” of government leaders, tech companies, and community members all working to “amplify the impact of civic technology.” This bridge between top-down and bottom-up helps Taiwan break down barriers to innovation. For instance, in 2017 it launched a “Regulatory Sandbox” that provides some flexibility for entrepreneurs developing new advances, such as self-driving vehicles.

The vTaiwan consultation platform is the g0v community’s most high-profile success to date. The vTaiwan process has four stages, as outlined in a careful study published in 2018 (co-authored by Tang). Here’s a simplified sense:

  • Proposal: At vTaiwan’s weekly hackathons, contributors can raise legislative issues for consideration. A government authority can accept the issue, becoming accountable for it, and a dedicated facilitator then guides the rest of the process.
  • Opinion: Stakeholders can provide feedback on the proposed issue across a number of open discussion platforms that feed into the system. Comments are voted on to gauge popularity, but direct responses are restricted to reduce trolling. The relevant government authority must reply to comments within a week.
  • Reflection: Facilitators host a live-streamed consultation of key stakeholders across public and private sectors, institutional leaders, and community groups. Other participants can contribute remotely in real time.
  • Legislation: Once consensus is reached, an issue is resolved, with the group issuing a guideline, policy, official statement, or even draft bill to the government authority in charge.

While it may seem a little abstract from afar, vTaiwan has produced very tangible results — for example, playing a direct role in determining the country’s legislation toward Uber. In a 2018 Tech Review article, Chris Horton describes in detail how the platform slowly but powerfully shaped a consensus over this issue. During the four-step process, a large anti-Uber contingency became convinced of a viable regulatory path forward that prioritized key concerns over safety, insurance, and jobs:

The divide between pro- and anti-Uber camps had been replaced by consensus on how to create a level playing field for Uber and the taxi firms, protect consumers, and create more competition. [Audrey] Tang herself took those suggestions into face-to-face talks with Uber, the taxi drivers, and experts, which led the government to adopt new regulations along the lines vTaiwan had produced.

As g0v co-founder Chia-liang Kao explained in a 2019 interview, the government authority sponsoring a vTaiwan proposal must explain how they plan to incorporate a proposal into new policy decisions. And if they can’t incorporate the outcome for some reason, the sponsor must explain that, too, improving accountability and transparency. “Thus,” said Kao, “vTaiwan aims to provide a model for open and broad participation in public and government affairs.”

Between technocratic and technophobic

The Covid-19 crisis demands strong central leadership, coordination, and communication, but the response effort only improves when communities chip in to support. That community effort is taking many forms around the world— from simply practicing the proper public health guidelines, to rapidly developing digital tools that can help people protect themselves, to sharing open-source approaches for building makeshift ventilators.

As Lanier and Weyl write in Foreign Affairs, Taiwan’s digital democracy offers an alternative approach to “both technocracy and technophobia.” We all have a role to play in the current crisis, and rapid innovation has never been in greater demand. The g0v community’s success reminds us that this innovation should be as open as possible — and that it should come from anywhere and everywhere. That lesson will serve well now and in the future.

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Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities. The official blog of Sidewalk Labs.

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Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe

Editorial Director @sidewalklabs

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