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Open, Accountable Tech Helps Taiwan’s Democracy

When it comes to digital democracy, democracy is the main idea, and digital is just an objective to assist democracy. Around the world, there is the other way of ideas that somehow democracy must give way to the public health measures, to counter disinformation measures. However, technology needs to adapt to the people’s will and the people’s norms, and people’s co-creation and real needs.

In authoritarian uses of technology, the main difficulty would be because of the lack of symmetrical communication. The real-time feedback of what is really going on is hampered. For example, if you can only download, it is more like television. If you can only download but there’s no way to upload, then emerging issues do not tend to get notified in time.

– Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan

In Taiwan, the system has been successful in hearing younger people. A lot of the most impactful ideas came from very young people. To shorten the time that a genuinely good idea gets thought by a teenager or young people, and the time that it is understood by the senior people and implemented, is key to moving democracy forward. The younger people, because they are digital natives, they do not think that once every four years is sufficient to upload bandwidth, the latency is too high, they prefer to collaborate on a day-to-day basis.

When the coronavirus began spreading, Taiwan quickly established a mask map system that let people know if they could obtain masks if they went to certain pharmacies. The mask availability map was an idea from the civic technologists, not the government’s idea.

First, they already have a lot of experience building maps of this kind. All sorts of disaster response experiences, including earthquakes, typhoons, gas explosions, occupying of departments, various disasters, were met with this kind of real-time, map-based response by the civic tech people. The second reason is that people are very much willing to participate, because in Taiwan broadband is a human right. So, participating online does not cost any extra connectivity, money, for people.

In Taiwan, when people check-in the public venues, everyone chooses either to scan the QR code and send an SMS to 1922 (Taiwan’s 24-hour communicable disease reporting hotline), which is stored in their telecommunications carrier. But the venue owner learns nothing about their phone number. And the telecom carrier learns nothing about the venue code. de-centralized storage makes sure that nobody’s privacy gets compromised because the telecoms do not know what those digits mean.

There are two main reasons why Taiwan has changed from a very conservative to a democratic society. One is that the public service is really committed to working with the civil society leaders when it comes to gender mainstreaming in the gender equality committee to build the impact assessment, evidence-based projects together. And the civil society leaders always have one more vote than the ministers in the Gender Equality Committee.

The second reason is that the statistics, the dashboard, the gender impact dashboard just keep running. So even after the budgeted project runs its course, the gender impact it created is still being monitored for more than a decade for some projects now. Civil society is not just demonstrating against or protesting against something, it is demonstrating for something, demonstrating something works, and working with the people.

As reported by OpenGov Asia, Taiwan encouraged other nations to consider Taiwan’s example of open digital development and privacy safeguards in countering digital authoritarianism and affirming democratic values. To elaborate on the tools Taiwan has used to foster transparency and public trust, the key is to work not only for the people but with the people.

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