This article is based on an article from the Japanese edition of Engadget and was created using the translation tool Deepl.
Audrey Tang, Taiwan's Minister of IT, made a name for herself in Japan by promoting the use of Mask Map to control the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). Born in 1981 at the age of 39, she has already served as Taiwan's Minister of IT for four years.
She didn't fit in at school and dropped out of middle school, at the same time she was learning Perl. At the age of 19, she signed a contract with a Silicon Valley company, Apple. As mentioned above, she became the talk of the world for her use of technology to prevent the spread of infection in Taiwan and for her quick response to civil services. You may have heard of our cooperation with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's website on the new coronavirus via GitHub.
There is no shortage of other news stories, including the fact that she began transitioning to a female gender in 2005, and that she took the English pronunciation of her name "Audrey" from the Japanese word "Otori". We had the opportunity to interview Audrey Tan remotely, and we spoke at length with her about the new coronavirus, her career, and her vision for the future of Taiwan.
A digital administration that responds quickly to the new coronavirus and wins the information war
Your system for pre-ordering masks was ready in three days, right? Why was it done in such a short period of time?
Audrey Tang: In fact, it was a slight change in the text file. Tax returns in Taiwan can be filed from more than 12,000 convenience store ATMs using your National Health Insurance Card. Also, if your income is low, you will have to pay at the counter. So, basically, the government counter, all pharmacies, post offices, and ATMs are connected to the system of. Public trust in the insurance card system, which is handed out on the third day of life and can only be used by public services also thick. This was the result of taking advantage of this.
This is how we achieved a fair rationing policy in a way that everyone could trust, but on the other hand, panic buying, etc. , action by rumor must be prevented. The countermeasure to this is to send out funny humor rather than infodemics (information + epidemic) efforts. This voluntary sharing of the right information by people has helped us win the battle against new coronaviruses and infodemics without a lockdown.
The role of technology in Taiwan's administration is already a big one.
Audrey Tang: Yes, that's right. It has become a very important part of the government. Everyone can watch the live stream of the press conferences that we're having centrally, and it also allows us to have a mechanism to share new ideas when we come up with them.
For example, we received feedback that the color of the masks provided were random and that boys who won pink were refusing to go to school, but the next day a campaign was launched by the men in the cabinet to wear pink masks.
Thus, in response to the information about the spread of the new coronavirus that began with the whistleblower in early January, we have been working to ensure that good information from the community is gathered, that preventive measures are taken as soon as possible, and that such information and activities are amplified on social media.
Why is Taiwan so strong in information and technology?
Audrey Tang: One reason is the new public-private partnerships.
Typically, the government comes up with the idea, and through procurement, the private sector brings it to life. Then the social sector explains the idea to the community and asks for participation and feedback, a traditional waterfall model. However, in Taiwan, we have embraced agile development. The biggest difference from the common one is that it starts from the demands of the society.
In the example of the medical masks I mentioned earlier, there was a societal demand for medical masks because people did not know where to get them. So a solution was proposed to show the locations of available masks on a map, but this was not done by the government.
It originally started with someone in Tainan named Howard who was crowdsourcing the data of his friends and family on a map, and used the technology to his advantage. However, so many people from Taiwan reported their mask inventory information that it resulted in a huge ballooning of the Google Maps API fees in just two days. At the same time, it occurred to me that the government should provide more reliable information.
So I took over the idea. Google had agreed to waive the API fee at this point. It was also the private sector's request to press government agencies to provide data that would be updated every three seconds. Thus, we created more than 140 applications in just a few weeks, including not only Mask Map, but also chatbots, voice assistants and informational dashboards.
This is an achievement that was only possible because we embraced agile development. We don't have to wait for the procurement process, and the talent for such capabilities already exists in the social sector.
What kind of people do you think can play an active role in government and how do you think they can do so in the future? And how does it work?
The dashboard was represented by a single green bar, and the designers looked at it and said, "We should utilize colors that are easy to see for people who are colorblind or have poor vision".
This could lead to an appeal for participation in agile development, not only for engineers but also for designers. The same goes for product designers, visual designers, service designers and interaction designers.
Most importantly, we need to build a "culture" of these diverse people working together. This requires an engagement strategy to change the mindset that converts complainers into "co-creators". A good example of this is the dashboard of Tokyo's new coronavirus infection control website.
A career of continuous learning
I heard you stopped attending school in middle school. What was the impetus for that?
Audrey Tang: When I was 14 years old, I was working at a science fair. At that time, winning first place in a national science fair guaranteed me a place in high school. This was when I was also connecting with the online research community.
What I realized then was that if I did go to high school, I would only be able to learn about old findings in textbooks. At the same time, I learned that new scientific discoveries are shared online on the server.
So I talked to the principal of my middle school and he told me I didn't have to come to school tomorrow. Today, learning at home, or alternative education, has become part of daily life in Taiwan and has already become a part of Ten percent of the students made the same choice I did. But 25 years ago, of course, it was illegal in Taiwan.
What does learning mean to you?
Audrey Tang: I ended up dropping out of middle school and starting my own company. On the other hand, I have always believed that learning is a lifelong process.
At a nearby university, I took classes in philosophy and human nature in particular, which required a lot of brainstorming as well as textbook reading, and I began to emphasize learning through physical conversation. I've also read a great many classics and books through my Project Gutenberg (digitizing out-of-copyright masterpieces in their entirety) work, which began in 1971, and have made many contributions to the free software movement and other causes.
A lifelong learning experience that has driven my curiosity about why people trust each other online more easily than they do in person. To answer this question, you have to learn seven different areas of knowledge, and you have to create your own field from those different areas.
In this context, you started your career by starting your own business in middle school.
Audrey Tang: One of my jobs is a search engine that blends the local and remote, known as "fusion search". It aims to index information in the computer, like Spotlight implemented in macOS, for example, and combine it with existing online searches, like AltaVista then, and now Google, to predict and retrieve the information the searcher wants.
Later, the same company also launched CoolBid, a C-to-C auction site and other products, and it has grown into one of the largest software companies in Taiwan. Around 1998, just as we received investment from Intel, I left the company to focus on developing free software.
Then you joined Apple, right?
Audrey Tang: Yes, I signed a private consulting contract with Apple to work on Siri's multi-lingual support. Siri initially spoke only English, but my main challenge was to prove that it could handle a variety of languages. This coincided with my interests as well.
In fact, I've been working as a multilingual specialist in the Perl community for many years, and was invited by my friend Kevin Lenzo to join in until the release of macOS Sierra.
I've learned a great deal through this work. For example, how to enable the use of languages with less material in the localization of cloud services and artificial intelligence.
I worked with Oxford University Press to improve the crowdsourced dictionary to ensure that Siri could also hear the local language.
Later, Mozilla launched a voice recognition project and faced a similar problem, and I was able to help, at least with the Taiwanese version.
By the way, when I signed the contract with Apple, I said my hourly rate was one bitcoin. One bitcoin was $100 at the time, but I figured its value would be over $200. However, Apple and Apple University (HR) were paying me in US dollars and British pounds, claiming that their accounting system did not support bitcoin payments. In the end, they didn't pay me in bitcoin, but my hourly rate went up like the rate of bitcoin.
Future Youth, Politics, and the Future of Taiwa
What changes do you think will occur in the relationship between technology and politics now and in the future?
Audrey Tang: Social media, for example, has changed the way we organize for political action. In the past, organizing a large movement required leaders to know each other, but now is just one hashtag to start a strike on climate change. All you need is the right hashtag that people can get behind.
Today, hashtags are becoming the newest way to participate in social innovation. It's a faster, fairer, and more fun way to do things. And what we should be proud of is that the hashtags are spontaneous, nobody controls them, and anyone can modify and evolve little by little. This can be described as an open project.
In addition, algorithms like Google Docs, where versions do not conflict with each other, make it possible for collaborative work to involve hundreds or thousands of people, even ordinary people who are not engineers. These techniques enable new ways of collective intelligence. Of course, at the same time, they also act as antisocial, creating confrontation and conspiracy theories.
The designers of that social media space will decide whether political activity through these hashtags will be beneficial or harmful to society.
In this context, what is the new strategy for the nation, including Taiwan?
Audrey Tang: Quite simply, open source, open data, and crowdsourcing are the new national direction will be decided. In fact, in Taiwan, chiefs who support open policies have won elections. A well-informed public, from a facilitator with expert knowledge, makes the organizational risk measures and decisions that are made.
Taiwan is a republic of citizens with more than 20 cultures, and each culture certainly has a different way of life. So the key concept is the idea of "transculturation". Rather than specializing in efficiency and manageability to progress, the improvement of society needs to take place without sacrificing culture. Internet culture, for example, is founded on rough agreements and implementation codes. If this develops with the will of all people and stakeholders involved, it means that our common values have arisen universally there.
The result is a thorough improvement in which no one is left behind. With the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), the goal is not to achieve one at the expense of 16 out of 17, but to achieve all 17. It is a different vision than state control or capitalism, which achieves one value at the expense of many "others".
Will Taiwan be the source of these new values in the future?
Audrey Tang: We are currently experiencing the first human experience of tackling the problem of information pandemics on the same time scale and global scale. For those of us who have not been able to unify our values, even on climate change, it's a tremendous opportunity.
Climate change has not been a problem for some people in some areas, and in those areas it has not even been a benefit to their countries, so it has not been a common issue for humanity. But in the case of the new coronavirus, the relevant information travels around the world in an instant, mainly affecting liberal democracy. The more liberal you become, the more susceptible you become to influence.
Simultaneous outbreaks around the world, when viewed between each other's regions, are a reflection of what was going on in their countries two months ago or two months later. In other words, the ideas that won the infodemic and avoided lockdown that were effective in Taiwan could easily be exported to other countries.
Videoconferencing has become the norm, and in every country, high-ranking officials and politicians are now using videoconferencing for domestic and diplomatic purposes as they appear on screen with masks on. International communication has become more egalitarian than we can imagine.
Taiwan will continue to use ideas to contribute to global issues, remembering solidarity and high-level cooperation.
This article is based on an article from the Japanese edition of Engadget and was created using the translation tool Deepl. The Japanese edition of Engadget does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of this article.