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Audrey Tang: Taiwan’s Digital Minister on Harnessing Technology for Social Good – US-China Today

At 35, Audrey Tang (唐宗漢) was appointed as Taiwan’s digital minister, a role that she also occupied as the country’s first transgender and non-binary member of government. More recently, Tang has been behind Taiwan’s technology-driven COVID-19 response, which helped the country keep its case counts under 1,000 as they soared across the world. US-China Today sat down with Tang to speak about her identity as an illustrious young programmer turned government official, her optimism about technology’s ability to ameliorate social ills, and her thoughts about politics in a polarized world.

As a young person, you were famous for your prodigal computer programming abilities. How has your conception of technology changed since your earliest coding days? In the same period of time, how has your view on politics changed?

“Well, it’s changed a lot. When I was 8 years old, there wasn’t such a thing as the World Wide Web. [In] 1989 it would be quite some time until the first web browser was invented. At the time, To me, computing was very much [about] personal computing. The personal computer revolution was just starting. A lot of that resides in the idea that anything that I can do in the day-to-day, for example doing math or learning a new language, a computer can help me to do better. So I guess my earliest notion of computing is that of assistive intelligence. 

Fast forward to today, we have seen that computing is not necessarily just helping out individuals anymore. I would argue that most of our online life isn’t actually solo. … It’s more social. Our video conference for example, where our attention is on each other rather than on any particular computation infrastructure. … What used to be clearly defined by the person doing the computing is now more and more also defined by the system that facilitates communication is as important as the computer itself. 

You have an incredibly high IQ and started coding when you were very young. But you are also Taiwan’s youngest-ever cabinet appointee. Have people ever doubted your abilities to serve in such a high-up place in government? Have you experienced self-doubt of your own? 

I’m actually the second-youngest appointee. When I was [appointed] Digital Minister I was 35, but a few years back when Miss Zhenli Jun was first the cabinet member in charge of Youth Development, she was 34.

I mention Zhenli Jun — [she was] very important — because her work was mostly bringing in youth engagement, bringing in youth councils, introducing deliberative democracy and citizens assembly. …  [This] played a very important role in paving the way [for me]. When I entered the cabinet, she was the Minister of Culture, so we worked together to modify what the term ‘public infrastructure’ means. Previously, in the olden days,  public money [could] either be spent on public infrastructure, which is considered investment, or on operations and maintenance, which is considered ongoing spending. 

But when we’re talking about [wanting to] digitize the Taiwan Digital Asset Library, the historic buildings … into polygons using photometry, videography and so on, there’s no tangible ‘thing’ in it. The argument that [the library represents] digital public infrastructure is new to many people. There’s no concrete — like literally concrete — structure as a deliverable to such a project. But … because it’s creative commons, everybody gets to use it, it changes the discourse around these social objects. People don’t have to rely on second- or third-hand reports anymore. Everyone can feel it for themselves.  … Gradually we did convince people that digital public infrastructure is as important, or even more important, than analog public infrastructure.

I don’t think that I’ve had any [self] doubts, but that’s because I’ve had really good colleagues who are similarly innovative and [are] willing to engage the digital world.

Taiwan’s civic tech sector mobilized to enable one of the world’s fastest and most effective COVID-19 responses. What lessons can other countries take away? Are other countries looking to partner with Taiwan to share tech resources and practices?

During COVID[-19] we’ve had many exchanges, even a multilateral, 14-economies exchange a few days before the World Health Assembly. I think the main idea of Taiwan’s model is the ‘all of society’ model, where people, instead of just repeating or obeying top-down instructions, are empowered in the sense that both epidemiological ideas are plentiful, people do understand [them], and also people are free to innovate, to remix, to — as people in civic tech say — to ‘fork’ whatever government policies that are in place. 

Also very important is for the government to give an account, in a very predictable fashion, and that welcomes citizens’ input. In the past year there was more than two million phone calls to the toll-free number 1922. Each [call] ask[ed] either for personalized, individualized explanations or actually contribut[ed] to counter COVID-19 [measures].

[There was] the boy who called saying ‘you’re rationing masks, we’re getting only pink ones, the boys in my class all have navy blue ones and I don’t want to wear pink to class.’ In the next 2 pm [government] press conference, everyone wore pink. Pink became the most-hip color, and the boy became the hippest boy in class. 

The point here is rapid iteration cycles, and it can be done using not very cutting edge [technologies] — essentially just TV or radio — but … a predictable way for people to understand that their ideas get amplified within 24 hours. If [there was] anything we didn’t do well, we just apologize and correct that within 24 hours. That’s always very important. 

Can you expand upon your “Daoist approach” to political and social action? Is the role that spirituality plays in your professional life distinct from the role it plays in your private life?

Well, I’m currently doing [government service] for fun so there’s no real difference between the daytime and [night]. Actually, I do most of my work in my sleep anyways. Most of the daytime is just for listening and communication.

The idea of a Daoist approach is very simple: it’s not to do any top-down, shut-down, take-down, lock-down. …  The idea is ‘wei wu wei’ — to do without doing. Instead of doing specific things, [wei wu wei encourages me] to make spaces so that each and every citizen is able to innovate without me, or really any [government] official, being the bottleneck of innovation being spread.

Fostering a co-creative space — I think thats’ the main thing I learned from the Daoist approach. It’s I guess spiritual, but it’s also very practical and secular. 

vTaiwan is an open-source software which builds consensus on controversial topics and has inspired legislative change. What was the most illuminating aspect of building the platform? What important governmental issues do you see it being instructive for in the future?

Well, vTaiwan is run by the social sector, so as soon as I became Digital Minster in 2016 October, I handed the route password [over]. It’s been quite a while, [so] I can’t really speak for the project anymore. 

But I think still to this day, vTaiwan is being used to deliberate open parliament [and the] national election plan by the legislature. … The vTaiwan team is still using a mixture of online agenda setting and face-to-face — but also live-streamed — deliberations. So I think one thing [that has] stayed constant since I was more in charge of vTaiwan in 2015 to now is that the online and face-to-face compliments are not canceling each other out. It’s not a substitute or replacement relationship. Rather, the online part is best [used] to explore agendas, because online, especially asynchronously, people get more time to reflect on each others’ feelings. But online, it’s very hard to get to the actual deliberation. So we always arrange a face-to-face deliberation… [with] rough consensus as the agenda … and without over-focusing on the ideological or divisive parts as identified by political mechanisms. The rule of thumb is to discover and explore online, but to converge, to define [issues] together, face-to-face.

Something you just mentioned is the idea of rough consensus. Can you sum up your thoughts surrounding rough consensus and why that’s important for a country?

Rough consensus is an idea from internet governance, where people home alone get the feeling of each others’ resistance to any particular idea. But I think the main idea of rough consensus is contrasted [with] the traditional way the word consensus is used.

Consensus is usually used to mean something that is a defined consensus, meaning that we can all sign our names on it. The problem is that when people get online, especially when they don’t share many of the [same] first-hand experiences, it’s very difficult to get to that defined consensus. The people with the most time on their hands win the argument. 

But if someone is just aiming for rough consensus, meaning that we can live with it, then we’re really not talking about a concrete solution that is accepted by everyone, but rather a [sense of] shared values out of those different positions.

For example, in 2015’s UberX case, instead of debating endlessly whether to have a sharing economy or platform economy or gig economy, we instead just focus on the specific case of someone driving to work and back, and picking up a stranger. Even though [driver] doesn’t have a professional driver’s license, it turns out that everyone, including professional drivers, all agree … [on some basic] shared values despite the very different ideological differences on quote-unquote sharing economies. 

Do you think that other countries can achieve rough consensus as much as Taiwan has?

Well in 2014, the Taiwanese cabinet only had a citizen approval rate of around 9 percent. I don’t think it had ever sunk this low in terms of trustworthiness of government. People were very, very polarized. 

I think the main thing, though, is not to concentrate on the parts that are polarized. In Taiwan we’ve had many elections since our democratization, one where the winning president got barely 40 percent of the votes out of three candidates, [and] one where [someone won by]  literally 51 percent or 49 percent. We’re no stranger to polarization. 

The point of [embracing] the rough consensus platform … is to focus on a different picture of the population. There are many people who look at the policy reports for the first time and see that even though there are only 5 percent of statements that define the country, there’s actually 95 percent of statements that everyone more or less identifies with. That’s a very powerful image. It’s been repeated in the U.S. as well. … People — no matter Republican or Democrat or Libertarian — all agree that we need to put art into STEM education and diversify our broadband access so it’s more inclusive.

There are a lot of concrete points that are really unrelated to political ideologies. The important [thing] is whether we have a digital public infrastructure to reflect this basic fact to the citizenry, or whether we misuse the private digital infrastructures, like Facebook, which are really like nightclubs with their private bouncers and addictive drinks, and misuse it as a place for public deliberation. 

Many people feel that tech has failed society.  Disinformation and polarization are some of the biggest issues that technology has given rise to. Some also point to the decimation of the news industry business model. Do you believe critics are right, or are you more optimistic? What can the government and corporations do to address this?

Well, both of my parents are journalists, so of course, I support local journalism. But I don’t think the internet was invented to boost internet journalism. It’s a worthy goal, and I’m happy to work on it, but the internet is, as far as I understand, designed to [uphold] communication in a civilization after a nuclear fallout. … In that [regard], Internet probably didn’t fail society. Amid lockdowns, we still managed to get a lot of things done thanks to video conferencing and other technologies

With that said, I do think that the so-called social media, which I sometimes refer to as ‘anti-social media’, is having a very adverse effect on the quality of not just political discourse, but also on the basic ability to generate facts. Journalism, science, research [and] public deliberation are supposed to generate facts in a way that everyone can participate in. But nowadays, through the more antisocial corners of social media, the same attention span that could be used for fact-checking and digital competency and contributing to your local news, are being repurposed to amplify the most polarized and the most toxic part of the discourse.

 I do think it is an asymmetry issue. We have broadband as a human right. … Here in Taiwan, we make sure that everyone enjoys 10MG both uplink and downlink, and use it in a more symmetric way. The point is that if one uses social media or the Internet, just downloading 10 megabits per second but uploading only 1bit, … it’s very asymmetric and it’s essentially amplifying the worst of radio and television without the kind of public accountability that people used to have over radio and television. 

I think the solution is digital competence. In [Taiwanese] curriculum, we don’t say digital literacy anymore, we say digital competence, emphasizing that each schoolchild … is free to contribute not only to environmental science and local news, but also fact-checking presidential candidates, or taping a film of the local tallying process during elections.

Once everyone sees themselves … through the lens of media, then people could use the ‘uplink’ much more than many corners of the world currently do. That will deepen democracy by giving democracy more bits of source-checking information to work with.

Can you speak about specific examples of disinformation spread in Taiwan by China? How did Taiwanese citizens harness technology to find proof that China was the culprit?

One example was in November 2019. It’s not even covert — it was very overt. You can check it out in the Taiwan FactCheck Center. I think the fact check number is 204. … The interesting thing is that it’s actually based on a real photo. It’s a Reuters photo with some young people participating in the Hong Kong protest, which [was] shaping up to be, at the end of 2019, the defining issue of the presidential election in Taiwan. 

[Reuter’s] caption — which was just saying there were teenagers in the protest — was captured into a variety of mixes, such as and I quote: this thirteen years old bought new iPhones and game consoles [after being paid to riot in the protests], and is recruiting his brothers unquote. 

We didn’t take anything down, just as [now, during the pandemic,] we fight the infodemic without administrative takedowns. Instead, what we did was partnering with the International Fact Checking Network. … [They] did a fact check really quickly, and said that ‘oh, this actually is a wrong caption.’ The Reuters caption didn’t say anything like that. That [fale] caption originally came from the Weibo account of 中央政法委长安剑, the account of the central political and law unit of the Chinese Communist Party. 

This is interesting, because this approach of what I call public notice — as opposed to notice and takedown — actually inoculates people. … Antisocial media is made more prosocial by a very clear marker that says ‘This is a state-sponsored disinformation campaign. Click here for a fact check.’ We didn’t take anything down and people came to understand that there is a Beijing-sponsored … disinformation campaign related to the Hong Kong protests.

This is just one example. There are many. But they are mostly on the Fact Checking Center website, which is a social sector organization and not at all sponsored or directed by the government. Thye fact check us all the time too.

Why are there so many civic hackers in Taiwan? What incentivizes these hackers to forego high-paying tech-sector jobs to instead work on promoting democracy and working toward social causes? 

Well, these definitely are not competing interests. There’s many high-paid people — yours truly included, before I joined the cabinet — that dedicate their weekends and even some weekdays into public infrastructure work for digital democracy. This is not just out of a sense of fun or passion, but also it has very concrete rewards. If during an HR interview, someone says that ‘hey, you probably have used the work that I’ve done, because your child is learning Mandarin and the Mandarin dictionary is collaboratively done by people in gov0’ — chances are that their recruitment will go much more smoothly. They have essentially contributed to a very high-profile project that the government wasn’t doing very well in the beginning. Civic hackers ‘forked’ and did very well. …

There’s an ecosystem. If you solve a problem that has broad public appeal, it’s probably also solving worldwide problems, and that gives you much better access to the worldwide network as a whole. It’s still entrepreneurship — it’s just social entrepreneurship. Things that don’t destroy democracy, but rather repair democracy, as part of entrepreneurship.

That’s part of why people devote so much time to [civic hacking]. They see an exit not necessarily to the public listing of [an] IPO, but exit to a community which is very much thriving worldwide.

How has Taiwan’s open government policy made hard-to-find material accessible to the general public? What information are people demanding the most?

Well, their own information, of course. The top downloaded app last year in both iOS and Google Play was the National Health Insurance app, or the NHI Express (简报快意 in Mandarin). That’s where people could … see all their dentist visits, traditional medicine visits, doctor visits, x-rays and CT and too. Basically any medical record that’s held by any clinic that’s covered by the NHI — which is pretty much every [hospital] — is in that app. People could very easily download their data as well [and] even dedicate their mask rationing quota that they don’t need to international humanitarian aid. 

This is much more than downloading public information. This is a data collision where each and every citizen is in charge of how to make use of their personal data. … The point here is that with one-quarter of the population know using this app and dedicating their quotas to international humanitarian aid and also participating in studies … by authorizing, through a third-party research [body] that they trust will make use of their data well without targeted advertising … this shapes a new way that citizens control the production of their data, not just the consumption of public data.

Of course we also do public data downloads very well, like real-time mask availability in the 6,000 pharmacies. That is of course very popular. But in terms of the time people spend on data, definitely their personal data, what we call ‘my data’ is more [frequently accessed] than ‘open’ data.

Tang’s media policy stipulates that each interview be uploaded as a video or transcript Tang’s social media. You can watch our interview below.

Photos courtesy of Audrey Tang.