Q1: Could you tell us about the beginnings of this digital democratization? How did the group of citizen hackers “g0v” (gov-zero) come about? What role did you, Audrey Tang, play in it? How did “g0v” provide logistical support to the 2014 Sunflower movement?
From the earliest days of internet development in Taiwan, Taiwan has boasted a vibrant community of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) programmers who were keen to engage in social issues, willing to collaborate with democratic endeavors and fight against authoritarian forces. The “g0v” community develops in such an open environment.
As a poly-centered, leaderless collaborative online community, g0v aims to use technology in the interest of the public good, allowing citizens easy access to vital information and power to shape the civil society. The g0v community promotes transparency of government information, redesigning existing government processes and services and enabling citizens to see how the state operates. The community meets in person in regularly “hackathons.” All outputs are published in Creative Commons and FLOSS licenses, enabling it to be copied, modified and used by anyone.
The network of g0v was instrumental in the Sunflower Movement in March 2014. Around that time, Taiwan’s parliament passed a very controversial pact, an opaque trade agreement with Beijing. Half a million people were on street — many more online — to demand that the pact be scraped and that the government institute a more transparent ratification process.
The Parliament, for the first time in Taiwan’s history, was occupied. When people actually occupied the parliament building, there were inevitably some issues to solve. For example, rumors would inevitably grow in an enclosed environment, and the logistics such as the supplies, the food, the drinking water, also needed to be looked after.
I was there to help set up a system of communication to ensure what was happening inside the Parliament travels faster than rumors. Many from the g0v community contributed. For example, we set up a projector, outside of walls of the parliament, which plays in real time what is happening in the occupied area. Later on, I worked with the cable-power-radio team on the field, providing the ICT experts with equipment to connect all the occupy areas — and the external streets — into a local network. We also had a fiber-optic connection to the Internet.
The occupation, which drew widespread public support, ended a little more than three weeks later, after the government promised greater legislative oversight of the trade pact. I call this as a successful public “demonstration,” but demonstration not as in protest, but as in “demo,” demo as in showing a new version of governance system that actually can get people’s voice on the street into a coherent consensus.
Q2: How was the “vTaiwan” (Virtual Taiwan) platform born in 2015? Could you describe to us some of the issues democratically addressed on “Virtual Taiwan”- for example the regulation of Uber, the sale of alcohol online, etc. - and the role played by the digital tool “Pol.is”?
In December 2014, Jaclyn Tsai, a government minister focused on digital technology, attended a g0v-sponsored hackathon and proposed the establishment of a neutral platform where various online communities could exchange policy ideas.
Several contributors from g0v responded by partnering with the government to start the vTaiwan platform in 2015. This brought together representatives from the public, private and social sectors to debate policy solutions to problems primarily related to the digital economy. Since it began, vTaiwan has tackled a few dozens of issues, relying on a mix of online debate and face-to-face discussions with stakeholders. Though the government is not obligated to follow vTaiwan’s recommendations, the group’s work often leads to concrete action.
The vTaiwan project partly relies on a unique digital tool known as Pol.is to ensure its crowdsourced policy debates remain civil and reach consensus. Using Pol.is, any vTaiwan participant can post a comment about the topic or policy being discussed. Crucially, other users cannot directly reply to these statements, which reduces the likelihood of trolling and abuse. Instead, they can click “agree,” “disagree” or “pass/unsure” on each comment.
Using real-time machine learning, Pol.is analyzes all the votes on the comments to produce an interactive map that groups like-minded participants together in relation to other, differently minded users. The map lays bare the gaps between various groups — as well as any areas of agreement. Ideally, this incentivizes people to post comments that attract more supporters, creating a path toward consensus.
One successful case is UberX in Taiwan. I have blogged about it here: https://blog.pol.is/uber-responds-to-vtaiwans-coherent-blended-volition-3e9b75102b9b
Q3: What is the “Join” civic engagement platform and what kinds of issues does it help resolve with government? Lots of people participate - especially young people? Does it have just a participation and listening function? Is it decisional?
The “Join” platform (join.gov.tw) is Taiwan’s one-stop online participation website, where anyone can file a petition. Twice a month, for petitions that gather 5,000 joining signatures, face-to-face collaborative meetings across related ministries are held to explore ways to incorporate them into policymaking. It is a platform to make sure that any citizen — literally any citizen — can set the agenda and play a role in the decision-making process. In fact, more than one quarter of the citizen’s initiatives were started by people who are not even 18 years old.
Although the focus of the Join platform is on participation and listening, it has long-term impacts on policy decisions as well. For example, a few years ago, a 17-year-old student filed a petition that we ban plastic straws gradually so as not to harm the sea ecosystem. The petition gathered over 5,000 signatures and went into collaborative meetings. Eventually, in 2019, the regulation to gradually ban plastic straws in Taiwan took effect, and the petitioner became a full member of our cabinet-level Open Government National Action Plan Taskforce.
Q4: Tell us about the “Presidential Hackathon”? What about the “Judicial Yuan” team and how they approached drunk driving - and other topics?
The Presidential Hackathon is a tech initiative bringing Taiwan’s public, private and social sectors together to solve urgent problems. At the annual event — the first of which was held in 2018 — teams of hackers composed of either private citizens or government workers compete to design the most innovative improvements to the nation’s public services. Instead of prize money, the best teams receive a promise from the government that it will apply their ideas.
One of the top teams in past years’ Presidential Hackathons included one team from the Judicial Yuan, the judicial branch of the Taiwanese government. One of the digital tools the team developed was about drunken driving, aiming to make the nation’s judicial system more legible and transparent for everyday Taiwanese.
Drunken driving is an issue of broad public concern in Taiwan. And in recent years, the differing sentences handed out to drivers involved in high-profile accidents have led to public confusion about why some punishments can be so light compared with others.
The Judicial Yuan team worked with civic text mining technical talents, and jointly developed a sentencing prediction reference system, to address this confusion by giving the public a better sense of why punishments can differ for the same crime. The team analyzed over 50,000 verdicts from previous drunken-driving cases. Any user can simply input the full text of the judgment in his hand, and through AI technology, the system can recognize sentences related to the sentence for the crime of drunken-driving, such as blood alcohol concentration, the type of vehicle involved the case or whether it is speeding, etc. Based on this data, the system compares previous similar judgments and automatically suggests appropriate sentencing for the case.
Not only is the court sentencing process more accessible to the public, but judges can also use this system to review their own trials in advance, whether the sentencing of the case deviated from the normal scope of judicial practice.
Another winning project was the “Water Refill Map” mobile phone app developed by Fong Cha Action, a team formed by Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency and the social enterprise CircuPlus. Taiwan consumes a billion bottles of drinking water per year, not counting bottles for other beverages. Cutting the use of bottled water by a mere 1% per year can lower carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 895 metric tons. By collecting the data on existing water stations and initiating multilateral cooperation through crowd sourcing, inviting enterprises and the general public to share information on any drinking water refill spots, the team developed the “Water Refill Map” mobile phone app to help people find the nearest spot where clean drinking water is free to use.
Q5: What is the political philosophy at work in this process? Transparency? Public participation? The search for consensus? How do digital tools specifically contribute to this democratization? Is there not a risk of rat race and aggressive attacks as we see today on Twitter?
I think what best describes this political philosophy is “digital democracy.” I believe democracy itself is a technology. Like other technologies, it gets better when more people endeavor to improve it. By promoting openness and transparency, encouraging civic participation, and building consensus, emerging technologies can play a crucial role in advancing democracy.
I would like to make the difference between the radical transparency as we practice here, which is making the state radically transparent to the citizen, and the social credit system, which is to make the citizenship radically transparent to the state. That is why I practice radical transparency. In principle, I publish all the meetings with the journalists or the lobbyists — even internal meetings that I chair — on the internet.
Through this process, we learn to be accountable to the future in the administration. The internet will keep a record for the future generations, which include not only you who are reading this, but also all the stakeholders that will be affected by the meetings that we hold, and because of that the lobbyists, the public servants, they argue from a viewpoint of becoming a “good-enough ancestor ancestor” simply because raising an argument that sacrifices the options of future generations wouldn’t make much sense.
This process of transparency aims to foster mutual trust. While a digital authoritative regime uses digital tools such as state censorship to monitor its people, in Taiwan, the social sector actively creates digital infrastructures to enable everyday citizens to propose and express opinions on policy reforms. That is because we understand trust in the government begins with trust in the citizens, and digital democracy in Taiwan begins with that.
As for the risks of using digital technology in democracy, digital technology, just like any other technology, needs to work with the people. The whole idea is not one single technology that transform the society. It’s the other way around. The society with sufficient digital competence can co-create clear norms, which in turn demands swift & safe designs from the technologists.
This is precisely why we adopted “competence” (the ability to co-create) — not just “literacy” (the ability to comprehend) — in our basic education in Taiwan.
Q6: Could you tell us the story of your electronic double as Minister and how he intervened and was received on the international diplomatic scene?
I sent double robots to, for example, the 2017 Internet Governance Meeting in Geneva in the United Nations building, because the UN building doesn’t usually allow Taiwanese passport to enter – and I believe you know what politics were in play.
The topic of the meeting was about Internet governance and Taiwan was invited to share our experiences on digital development. Taiwan is a vital stakeholder and contributor in the field of Internet governance, and it was just natural to invite Taiwan to speak at the event to share our contributions and capabilities in the field. I appeared as a double robot so no passport was needed. Delegates from the PRC regime also spoke. We were both on the record and I did not see any problem in that. The result was as good as I was physically there — fellow panelists were happy to see me and to hear about Taiwan’s story.
Q7: Do you think that this democratization will make it possible to resist the Chinese threat, or on the contrary make it worse? Are you afraid of a Chinese intervention like we see today in Hong Kong?
For the former part of the question, the answer is yes. I think democratization will definitely make us more resilient against such threats. The Sunflower Movement is a great example. Demand for greater transparency successfully stopped a proposed trade deal with Beijing that would leave Taiwan vulnerable to external political pressure.
Another example is Taiwan’s successful tactics against disinformation. Given its geopolitical history, Taiwan is no stranger to some of the most unrelenting disinformation campaigns in the world, with an intention to disrupt civic and government processes. Instead of using centralized information initiatives, Taiwan employs decentralized, human-centered approach. In the pandemic, Taiwan adopted what I call the “fast, fair, and fun” approach, and the “humor over rumor” tactic to combat coronavirus misinformation, which allows the public to laugh at nonfactual information.
For example, in February 2020, there were false allegations spread online that Taiwan’s increased production of face masks was compromising its ability to make bathroom tissue paper. To keep people from hoarding toilet paper, we released a meme featuring Taiwan’s premier shaking his backside, with the caption “we only have one pair of buttocks.” The graphic also shows a table clarifying that the materials of toilet paper are imported from South America and have no bearing on medical mask production because those raw materials are sourced locally.
For the latter part of your question, the answer is no. Taiwan — a republic of citizens — was never part of PRC’s jurisdiction. That is the fundamental difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Yet it is not that we are oblivious to campaigns and interference from the PRC regime. Quite the contrary. In 2014, many people went to the street because they understood already through cyber securities, through disinformation, through propaganda, through various other nowadays called hybrid operation.
That is why we are continuously refining our capabilities through people-public-private partnerships. We are actively seeking and enhancing and international cooperation and partnerships with democratic allies, such as the United States, Japan and EU.