As some of you know, I was supposed to attend the Tokyo Olympics, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it because of the pandemic; the silver lining, though, is that I have made some friends who are interested in sports, have gained a lot of knowledge about the games, and feel like I have come to a real understanding the Olympic motto: “Faster! Higher! Stronger!”
Or, I should say, “Faster! Higher! Stronger! Together!”, after the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to include an expression of unity.
The same motto applies to the field of digital development. In the past, to strive for “faster, higher, and stronger” tech, many countries did their utmost to offer the most advanced facilities and services, to develop the most cutting-edge technologies, and to nurture high-tech “unicorns.” But more and more countries are finding that digital governance policies and promotion strategies are, like the Olympic spirit, not just about nurturing medalists, but also about bringing people together.
President Tsai announced the platform of “Digital Nation, Smart Island” during her election campaign, and the Executive Yuan in 2017 launched the Digital Nation and Innovative Economic Development Program (DIGI⁺). After her successful re-election, it was upgraded to “Smart Taiwan 2030” this year, with the vision of a smart nation for innovation, inclusion, and sustainability by 2030.
The vision of Smart Taiwan 2030 reveals a new direction for digital governance policy. Any innovation in a modern world must be pluralistic and inclusive, with sustainable development as its goal. This means that it is no longer the case that the government is formulating policies from the top down — dictating new development paths for industries and directing people to new public services — but rather is receptive to building ecosystems of people-public-private partnerships to address problems, guided by the needs of the people.
Some people may wonder how to cater to the needs of members of the public in our diverse and rapidly evolving society and whether problems may arise as some issues are prioritized over others, but if we look back at the history of digital development, we can see that the internet was not created by an international organization or country setting standards and then building a system for people to use, but by people of all stripes, scattered around the world, working together to establish a network that connects people to each other. On this shared system, they engaged in an iterative problem-solving process of inventing protocols according to their own needs, before gradually forming the internet as we now know it, which is now indispensable for social, economic, and political activity in every corner of the world, and in a constant state of evolution as the needs of its users change.
Indeed, in a pluralistic society, people’s needs are ever shifting, and regardless of whether governments are willing to address them, there will always be people willing to tackle new problems with digital innovation. A smart national digital governance policy should not be designed to dominate or prohibit these attempts, but to find ways to align with them, which I believe is the first aspect of digital governance: alignment.
When the COVID-19 outbreak struck last year, masks, the most essential personal protective equipment, were in short supply and the central government had to adopt a “real name registration system” for ordering face masks. Everyone wanted to know where to buy them, though, and “mask map” applications quickly appeared; the government didn’t discourage such efforts, but instead released the addresses of pharmacies selling masks and the number of masks they had in stock through open data, keeping the apps up to date.
In less than a week, more than a hundred map applications for mask availability were developed by people from all walks of life, with a wide range of configurations for use on the messaging app LINE and with voice assistance options for the blind. In other words, an alliance was forged between government, civic technologists, and the private sector, which allowed us to meet the diverse needs of the largest possible swathe of the population in the shortest possible time, and at the lowest possible cost.
When Taiwan was hit by a wave of infections in May this year, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) issued a nationwide level 3 COVID-19 alert, requiring contact information to be supplied when entering and leaving public venues to facilitate accurate contact tracing and notifications should that be needed.
However, the long queues for registration with paper-and-pencil at each shop can be both time-consuming counterproductive in terms of virus prevention measures as the wait increases exposure time in public, so people began discussing various digital solutions, while businesses introduced their own apps for registration. From these discussions and the apps developed by the private sector, the government was able to tell what was working and what was not, and was thus able to roll out the “1922 SMS” check-in system in the shortest possible time.
“1922 SMS” was not mandated by the central government but soon became part of people’s lives. The innovative design by the g0v (gov-zero) civic tech community proved invaluable — simply scan a QR code using the built-in smartphone camera and send the text message to 1922; no apps required.
Not only is this convenient, but it also addresses many of the concerns of the public: what if I don’t have internet access? A text message will suffice. What if I don’t have a mobile phone? You can still choose to write your contact information down on paper.
With the SMS system, how do we store the huge amount of data being transmitted on a daily basis, though? It is stored with the telecom company providing the user’s phone service and can only be accessed by contact tracers — you can request a full audit of accesses to your own records — and the information is deleted after 28 days. All of these considerations are reflected in the second aspect of digital governance: accountability.
Accountability in digital innovation puts people’s minds at ease as it inspires confidence that digital products will do what they say they will in ways that do not compromise user privacy; this is why personal data protection and cyber security are becoming increasingly important in digital development.
Moreover, accountability can ensure that improvements are made on a rolling basis as new challenges arise; for example, a judge found that evidence in a criminal investigation included data from the 1922 text messaging system and questioned its legality. Following discussions, the Ministry of Justice concluded that the 1922 SMS system does not constitute a private communication and should not be accessed as per the Communication Security and Surveillance Act; mobile network operators and judicial authorities are now preparing measures to rule out 1922 SMS from law enforcement surveillance.
Following this interpretation, specific measures have now been taken by telecommunications companies and the judiciary to preclude communications surveillance from accessing the SMS data.
As part of a national strategy for digital development, accountability is both a passive way to allay concerns and provide peace of mind and an active way to make the results of people-public-private partnerships a reality. For example, our Presidential Hackathon, which is entering its fourth year, serves as an opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together to come up with innovative ways of linking data across sectors and use digital technology to resolve social problems.
The Presidential Hackathon does not offer prize money, but the systems designed by winning teams are assured government promotion, the team is invited to be part of government initiatives, and government assistance is offered to find opportunities for commercial application.
As Taiwan’s digital minister, what digital means foremost to me is stimulation of social innovation by increasing the connections between people through technology. In other words, the emphasis is on alignment and accountability, whereby good ideas are taken seriously, and partners can be sought out to work together, establishing a virtuous cycle that leads to innovative, inclusive, and sustainable digital development.
To put it in another way, only when people from different sectors, fields, and roles join forces can our digital development be faster, higher, and stronger— together.