The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on the world. In many countries we have seen the spread of misinformation, rising public anxiety and increasing political polarisation — often inflamed by social media. The challenge of tackling the virus, and the social problems it has caused, is straining the capabilities of governments around the world.
In Taiwan, however, we see a silver lining in the dark clouds. The pandemic has strengthened our model of collaboration between people, government and the private sector, deepening what I call “people-public-private” partnerships. This is because we have built digital infrastructure that lets people freely express opinions on policy reforms.
Our contact-tracing system, 1922 SMS, is a case in point. It was a solution jointly proposed by civictech communities in Taiwan to ensure both privacy protection and efficient contact-tracing. When Taiwan encountered its first wave of COVID-19 infections in May 2021, the g0v community (spelt with a zero in place of the “o”, and pronounced “gov-zero”), a decentralised group of “civic hackers” in Taiwan, swung into action. Civic technologists enthusiastically discussed how to improve existing registration systems, which mostly relied on paper and pencil, or primitive web forms, and were often confusing or counter-productive to virus suppression measures.
Inspired by these discussions, we worked with Taiwan’s five main telecoms firms to develop 1922 SMS. By scanning a QR code using a smartphone camera and sending a text message to the toll-free number 1922, check-in records are created and stored—with no need for an app. When necessary, contact-tracers can retrieve data from the system for quick and effective tracing. From discussion to deployment, the 1922 SMS system was built in a week. This would not have been possible without a robust partnership between the public and private sectors and the people.
This is just one recent example of Taiwan’s alliance between public servants and civic-techies. Since its establishment in 2012, the g0v community has gradually grown into one of the largest open-source civic-tech communities in the world. In 2017, g0v established a system of grants to reward community proposals that can potentially benefit the public interest. This in turn inspired us to initiate an annual “presidential hackathon” event in 2018, in which civic technologists and public servants form teams and compete to develop innovative ways to upgrade government services.
For instance, in 2019 a group of engineers, designers and NGO advocates noticed limitations in the government’s open-data platform, data.gov.tw. As part of the presidential hackathon, they formed a team called Gov Data Opener and worked with the relevant government agency, the National Development Council, to make it easier to track the progress of information requests. In 2020 a team made up of landscape and geospatial-data experts, called Patch by Planting, proposed a scheme to identify urban areas where trees could be planted, using satellite data to map land use and tree distribution.
Another scheme, the Rescue Action by Youth (RAY) project, offers opportunities to students. Since 2017 my office has gathered RAY students every summer to review government digital services. The students are divided into groups to focus on upgrading particular departmental websites. Through design and usability studies, they create prototypes that showcase suggested improvements. This approach has been used to upgrade the websites of the Hike Smart Taiwan service, which is used by mountaineers and hikers, and the Youth Development Administration, among others.
There are many other examples. An open platform called vTaiwan, created by volunteers, brings together representatives from the public, private and social sectors to devise and debate policy solutions to problems related to the digital economy, from online alcohol sales to ride-hailing. A related government-maintained platform, called Join, hosts debates and helps create consensus in other policy areas. Since its launch in 2015, Join has been accessed by almost half of Taiwan’s population.
Democracy—the combination of demos (people) and kratos (rule)—means “rule by the people”. The “Taiwan model” demonstrates how the use of digital platforms can strengthen democracy, by giving everyone a voice and enabling a government that works not just for the people but with the people.