What does coding mean to you? I read that you wrote your first game as an eight-year-old. How did you know you wanted to drop out of high-school and study coding? How old were you then?
How did you teach yourself coding? Tell us about your learning in Silicon Valley.
You’ve talked about how Taiwan needs an open-source software like Google. How close are you to getting there? How are you involved in the process? How important is access to free software in general?
Do you think it’s important for everyone to learn coding? Why or why not? What impact do you think coding has on people who learn it and on inclusive policy-making? How does it help social causes and social entrepreneurship?
Do you still code?
What does coding mean to you? I read that you wrote your first game as an eight-year-old.
When I practiced coding as a child, it was like practicing a musical instrument, that has logic as its notes — and the possibility of interactions as its melodies.
How did you know you wanted to drop out of high-school and study coding?
I discovered that the future of human knowledge is on the Web, and my textbooks were all out of date. So I told my teachers: I want to quit school and start my education on the World Wide Web. Surprisingly, the teachers all agreed with it.
How old were you then?
That was 1996; I was 15 years old.
How did you teach yourself coding?
I learned from the Free Software community, especially the Perl and Haskell communities, through IRC, Mailing Lists, Wikis, Conferences, and Hackathons.
Tell us about your learning in Silicon Valley.
I learned that “failure” is not personal and a natural part of tackling challenging social, environmental and technological issues.
If you write a post mortem, that becomes a social object around which you can have a meaningful discussion and inspire fellow innovators.
You’ve talked about how Taiwan needs an open-source software like Google. How close are you to getting there?
This year, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Amazon, Facebook and Uber have all established significant research and development programs in Taiwan, and all of them center around Open Source, Open API, and Open Innovation.
We are also seeing significant original open source contributors this year from Taiwan, especially around machine learning and distributed ledgers.
How are you involved in the process?
As the Digital Minister, I mostly oversee a refocus on service design, a refocus on human experience, and the way that collaboration, both between ministries and between sectors, can improve the experience of people interacting with each other.
In this role, I work as a channel between the civil society and our international friends, who work on various innovations that improves their work conditions, their living conditions, the planet really, and the government which still in many cases, work in a non-digital way.
How important is access to free software in general?
The tools that we use to shape our lives is more and more taking over the role that was initially taken by laws.
More and more, we’re living in a case where algorithms, where computer code already determine what is possible and what is not possible even before the legal code kicks in.
However, for people without the right to inspect the code, this process is less transparent compared to the legal system.
Therefore, my core concern is around freedom in the network society, with software freedom being one part of it, but also freedom of speech, of assembly, and of other human rights.
Do you think it’s important for everyone to learn coding?
Equal access to communication and computation resources, and the opportunity to learn how they work, is essential for social inclusion and equality.
Why or why not?
In Taiwan, we’re taking digital transformation very seriously. There’s many Asian countries also working on “broadband as a human right” and digital literacy, but the combination of Taiwan’s geography as well Taiwan’s highly developed ICT ecosystem makes it actually possible to deliver it.
What impact do you think coding has on people who learn it and on inclusive policy-making?
Learning to code is key to demystify the algorithms that affects out lives. Through the lenses of “computational thinking” and “design thinking”, we can join many collaborative and innovative communities.
How does it help social causes and social entrepreneurship?
To take one example, Taiwan’s air quality sensor community “LASS” introduced the AirBox, which is an edge IoT device that’s really cheap, that people just put on their balcony, their school, or their home to get a reading of air quality, for example on PM2.5.
There’s thousands of spots around Taiwan where the citizens themselves gather these numbers, and analyzing the open source function that’s even on a distributed ledger, to make sure that everybody has an idea of how the air quality is like.
While some other Asian countries try to contain these citizen science or civic tech groups, in Taiwan, we not only encourage that civic technology, we in fact actively collaborate with them.
We are working with the communities on Civil IoT, a NT$5 billion project to collect data from all sectors. Not just air quality, but also meteorological, water quality, earthquake-related data to the national supercomputing center, so that anyone who want work on an AI model to explain the correlation in human activity or policy can access the same data, which in turn promotes social innovation and entrepreneurship.
Do you still code?
Yes. As the Digital Minister, I absorb the risk of digital transformation by coding, in the administration, in our day-to-day operation, as much automation as possible, as much digital tools as possible, to enable as much paperless work as possible.
By piloting open source contributions such as HackMD, Pol.is, WeKan, Rocket.Chat, EtherCalc and Sandstorm.io in a Minister’s office, we reduce the risk for career civil servants to work on digital transformation, because once that I do this first, everybody can cite me as an example.