Amid the coronavirus outbreak that has reached all corners of the world, Taiwan has emerged as a prime example of how to handle a pandemic. Despite its close proximity to China — only about 1,000 km from the COVID-19 epicentre Wuhan — Taiwan currently only has five fatalities and 306 cases of infection.
Early travel bans, social distancing, and the use of technology to track high-risk citizens have helped flatten the curve. While the government plays a big role in introducing and implementing these measures, it’s people’s willingness and full participation that make them effective.
Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang has spent years bridging these two sides. The self-described “conservative anarchist” is a civic hacker who, in 2016, was appointed as Taiwan’s youngest official in a top government position. She also happens to be the only transgender minister.
To prevent panic while providing useful information to the public, her ministry rolled out a real-time citywide alert of risky locations visited by the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers in Taiwan. The ill-fated ship docked in Keelung City, near Taipei, with 2,694 passengers on January 31. Many of the passengers were found positive for the coronavirus.
To ward off face mask hoarding, Tang’s office adopted a tracking and rationing platform that allows citizens to see mask reserves at nearby pharmacies through over 100 interactive maps created by citizen developers. It also has a chatbot in the messaging app LINE that answers questions about where and how to buy masks.
As the pandemic progressed and people complained of waiting outside pharmacies for hours, Tang assisted in developing another platform that lets citizens order essentials online. The platform is not perfect, as it crashed not long after launch, but experts say it’s a step in the right direction.
“I think it's a good idea that several trials are being conducted to test how to get the online system to work efficiently,” said Roy Ngerng, researcher at the Risk Society and Policy Research Center. “I do think it's taking some time, but it might be, perhaps, better to work out a system that can function well during this current time, when the pandemic is still manageable in Taiwan — so there is still time to test out the system.”
This kind of community engagement and collaboration is a culture Tang and many hacker-activists in Taiwan have been advocating for almost a decade. “We believe broadband access is a human right,” the 38-year-old Tang told VICE.
G0v (gov zero), a civic hacker collective she’s been an active participant in since its creation in 2012, laid the foundation of this citizen-driven culture. By 2014, the collective had been engaged in various protests, including the student-led pro-democracy rally in the parliament building known as the “Sunflower Movement.” The group supplied equipment for live-streaming and communication as the protests unfolded, so the public could see what was happening in real time.
“After Occupy, all the mayor candidates that supported open government got elected, and all the mayors that worked against open government did not get elected,” Tang said. “And so, it became a norm in Taiwan, in civil society, to demand more transparency, even radical transparency, meaning transparency at the drafting stage of policymaking.”
Taiwan was already known for being accepting of the LGBTQ community, even before legalising same-sex marriage in May 2019. But recognition of trans people like Tang has been slow, even within the queer community. This makes her position as a top government official all the more important.
Tang began transitioning in 2005, a process, she said, that was “not difficult at all,” thanks to support she found from online LGBTQ groups.
“If you can easily reach 5,000 people and their stories of transition, then it’s just like joining a tribe of people and less like embarking on an unknown venture,” she said.
Tang said that communities like this are vital for people who want to understand the world through a different lens when it comes to gender and sexuality, culture, ethnicity, and ideology. It is this kind of community support she hopes to foster in her projects.
Apart from the face mask platform she developed to fight the coronavirus, she also previously helped form the online platform Join, where citizens from all backgrounds can shape policies by raising petitions. It is at once a place for e-petitions, regulatory pre-announcements, participatory budget, and auditing for mid-to-long term government projects. Basically, a democracy, digitised.
It may be hard to imagine the future right now, as people are increasingly anxious about a post-COVID-19 world, but Tang, an optimist, believes the pandemic can help accelerate the already shifting culture to telepresence, or the use of virtual reality in daily tasks and responsibilities.
“We're already seeing that telepresence [is] far from being a kind of niche tool, like sending a telepresence robot only when you really cannot make it in person or you want to make a point about carbon emission,” Tang said. “Once you embark on the telepresence journey, people will suddenly see that you can connect to people who you didn't know before.”
It’s this kind of collaboration that has helped Taiwan manage the coronavirus successfully, a strategy that could have been missed had Tang lived in a place not open to diversity.
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