Taiwan digital minister Audrey Tang on how open, accountable tech aids democracy: interview
TOKYO -- In the final days of 2021, journalist Akira Ikegami sat down for an online interview with Taiwan's digital minister Audrey Tang. Through a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the secrets to Taiwan's successful coronavirus response, how to get young people involved in politics, ways to create diverse societies, and how democracy can positively shape our relationships with technology.
Akira Ikegami (AI): We're having this discussion quite early in the morning. Are you sleepy?
Audrey Tang (AT): If I look sleepy now, I think most of the reason would be that I just got my third booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine yesterday. ... The first two doses were AstraZeneca and thank you, the people and government of Japan for donating those, but on the third, booster shot, I took Medigen, the local homebrew as we say, and it should have small side effect.
AI: You do many interviews all over the world.
AT: I've not counted the number of interviews that I have had in the past couple of years. I often wake up on the Eastern American, North or South American interview and I go to sleep after taking a European or African interview, so I'm not a time traveler, I'm a time zone traveler. Now every day I have to travel between many different cultures and many different time zones ...
AI: Recently, you were invited to participate in an online conference in South Korea, but your session was suddenly canceled. It's been said that South Korea did it out of consideration for China. What did you think about what happened?
AT: Yeah, it was kind of a short notice. ... But it's on that morning, did I receive the email explaining that it was canceled, citing various cross-strait considerations was taken into account. But of course, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs did want a fuller explanation, like what exactly was the concern ... But we never really got an explanation, anyway. But then after that I attended conversations with more Korean audience, of course that was more on the citizenry or private sector, and so on, and they are all very supportive of me. And also, the interview with KBS (national public broadcaster Korean Broadcasting System) was aired and it was pretty well, so I think the relationship is not affected between the people in (South) Korea that want to have a conversation or hear my message.
AI: You also spoke at The Summit for Democracy held by U.S. President Joe Biden (in December 2021). If technology can help democracy, it also, conversely can be used in places such as China for oppressive means. In Japan and elsewhere, you are regarded as a leading figure of democracy. What do you think about applications for technology in democracy?
AT: Well, my work is on digital democracy. And I'm really happy that people are seeing now that democracy is the main idea, and digital is just an objective, right, to assist democracy. Because around the world, especially during those couple of years, there's the other way of ideas that somehow democracy must give way to the public health measures, to counter disinformation measures ... or so goes the narrative. But my main message is that it's the other way around, it's that technology needs to adapt to the people's will and the people's norms, and people's co-creation and real needs and so on. So, it always should be democracy first and digital assists democracy ...
For the authoritarians, I can't speak for the authoritarians. I mean, of course we observe that in authoritarian uses of technology, the main difficulty would be because of the lack of symmetrical communication. The real time feedback of what's really going on is hampered. Because, for example, if you can only download, it's a little bit like television, right? If you can only download but there's no way to upload, then emerging issues do not tend to get notified in time.
AI: Minister Tang, you were young when you became a government minister. How did you reach this position, and what should be done to reflect the views of young people in politics?
AT: So, I worked in the Cabinet as a reverse mentor at the end of 2014. And for two years, I worked with the public service to build a system before really entering fulltime and becoming the digital minister. Yeah, so when usually a very young person, for example in 2014 I was just 33, enters a Cabinet to work with a Cabinet minister, at the time Minister Jaclyn Tsai. So she's much more senior in rank than me, right. So usually, I would be the intern and she would be my mentor. But reverse mentor flips this around, saying that the more senior leaders need to learn from the young people and the young people points out directions, whereas the senior leadership, find the resources to amplify those ideas. So, in a sense, I'm now no longer young I'm 40 years old now, and I also work with my own reverse mentors who are in their 20s and 30s, to point out new directions.
AI: In Japan, senior politicians don't tend to want to hear what young people have to say. Why do you think the system has been successful in hearing younger people in Taiwan?
AT: Yeah, because a lot of the most impactful ideas came from very young people, like literally teenagers. So, for example, the Commissioner Wang Hsuan-ju, currently 19 years old, started a very impactful petition when she just turned 17, to ban plastic straws to basically save the not just sea turtles, but also reduce plastic waste and also reduce carbon footprint. Because if we don't work with young people, like Wang Hsuan-ju, I guess they will go to the street and strike on Fridays or something, right.
So at the end of the day we will have to implement their vision anyway, but after a very high social cost. So to shorten the time that a genuinely good idea gets thought by a teenager or young people, and the time that it's understood by the senior people and implemented, is key to moving democracy forward. The younger people, because they're digital natives, they don't think that once every four years is sufficient upload bandwidth, the latency is too high, they prefer to collaborate on a day-to-day basis.
AI: Has your joining the Cabinet brought changes to Taiwanese politics?
AT: Yeah, especially the teleworking. I think, major media at the time did an opinion poll. And although a majority supported me in teleworking, still it's not a very large majority. ... But of course, fast forward to today, everyone is now used to hybrid working modes ... I was testing it out, so to speak, by basically teleworking myself. ... So those system were already available to the public service when I joined. But not many people use the digital way at the time in the Cabinet office itself, but I kind of exercised and made it more smooth by just trying it out so that by the time that we hear the COVID issue this year (2021) in May, our first and real only wave, for a couple months we were able to shift to teleworking without much pain.
AI: When the coronavirus began spreading, Taiwan quickly established a mask map system that let people know if they could obtain masks if they went to certain pharmacies. How did this come about?
AT: Yeah, so the mask availability map was an idea from the civic technologists. It's not the government's idea. And the reason why it's possible, I think are twofold. First, they already have a lot of experience building maps of this kind. All sorts of disaster response experience, including earthquake, typhoon, gas explosion, occupying of departments, various different disasters, were met with this kind of real-time, map-based response by the civic tech people. And that's the first reason.
And the second reason is that people are very much willing to participate, because in Taiwan broadband is a human right. So, participating online does not cost any extra connectivity, money, for people. ...
So I think the twin kind of broadband as a human right, as well as the disaster response experiences enable this kind of civic technology. ... So we've got more than 100 different applications for mask availability in just seven days. And that also speaks to a very different approach when it comes to working with the people, right? It's not about procurement, where only one vendor gets to create a map, but reverse procurement where everybody gets to create based on the same common open API or open machine-readable standard.
AI: If it were Japan, the government would place an order with a software development company, and some time would elapse before its completion. Was Taiwan's success a result of this system being in place? Or is it because of your personal leadership?
AT: It's a little bit of both. The system I think, has a heavier part to basically invest so that all the pharmacies are connected to the central epidemic command center via the national health insurance administration, and people are used to the IC card-based health card. It's a little bit like your My Number, but for us, it started in 2003. And nowadays, virtually everyone, not just citizens, but also residents, are comfortable using the IC cards.
AI: My Number Cards still aren't widely used in Japan, and digitalization has been slow. Some also worry their personal data might be used for malicious purposes. Why do you think health insurance cards have been able to spread in Taiwan?
AT: When you do digitalization, there are certain classes of technology, called privacy enhancing technologies, that actually make the digital communication even more private, compared to paper and pencil.
For example, in Taiwan, when we check-in the public venues, since this May, everyone choose either to scan the QR code and send an SMS to 1922 (Taiwan's 24-hour communicable disease reporting hotline), which is stored in their telecommunications carrier. But the venue owner learns nothing about their phone number. And the telecom carrier learns nothing about the venue code.
And so de-centralized storage makes sure that nobody's privacy gets compromised because the telecoms do not know what those digits mean. But the venue owner, they know what those digits mean, but they don't have any access to the SMS. Compare that to writing your name, or contact number on a piece of paper where everybody in the staff in the venue will have access to it. And if they don't protect this, well, even people queuing after you can see your telephone number when you're writing this down, so there's some privacy risk there also, but we're not forcing anyone to choose.
We simply explained why it's more accountable. And because you can go online and see which contact tracer have accessed your data in the past four weeks, you can download all the access records and so on. That's called reverse accountability, which is very difficult to do in pen and paper. So after opening up, it's for people to choose, most people chose the QR-code based checking method.
AI: Did you use the advice your grandmother gives you to create a system that anyone can use?
AT: Yeah, definitely. I talk to her every week, every weekend, and I visit her also. ... She is very interested in having a public policy debate. So, when we have a referendum, we talk about the referendum, when we have election we talk about election. When I attend, for example, the summit for democracy, she also have some suggestions on what to say and so and, so it's a very active conversation. ... Yeah, she requested that I don't run for the mayoral candidates in the Taipei city or any other city.
AI: But if you were mayor of Taipei, wouldn't that put you on a path that could lead to the presidency?
AT: Well, I think my main point is that I work with the people, not necessarily for the people. So when you ask about it's my leadership or if it's the infrastructure, I said the infrastructure plays a heavier part. And so I would much rather that I designed the infrastructure that can enable this kind of collaboration without relying on anyone's personal leadership. ... So I would much rather I focus on the mechanism design and investing in the infrastructure because it has a higher impact to the rest of the world when it is adopted and also co-created.
AI: The role technology can fulfill in helping to solve climate change issues is also gaining attention. What do you think is the potential here?
AT: For example, the Japanese system called mymizu enabled people using a smartphone to find the places around them where they can refill the water, instead of buying plastic bottles or any other bottles, causing waste and increasing carbon footprint. The same idea was then taken in Taiwan's Presidential Hackathon, and they took another thought, the Pokemon GO game, and combined the game and the mymizu idea into CircuPlus, we call it Phonecha, this tea-serving game that enable people to earn coins, make friends, learn stories, or whatever, while reducing the plastic waste and so on. ... So, if there's no digital games, like Pokemon GO and so on, providing inspiration, then this call to action would not be as successful.
AI: Oh, do you also play Pokemon GO? What sort of games do you play now?
AT: Back at the time, yes, when it was very, very popular in Taiwan. ... So I currently do not have a very invested game. I played a little bit The Oregon Trail, actually, which is a very, very old game. But Apple Arcade just brought it to the iPad. So, for the past couple of weeks, I played a little bit, kind of a nostalgia game, it was one of the very early computer games. ... I mean, I learned English by playing the game Magic: The Gathering. And I hear that the game is still around.
AI: Minister Tang, you are openly transgender, and joined the Cabinet in 2016. In 2019, Taiwan recognized same-sex marriage. Do you think it changed the government's awareness of aiming for a diverse society?
AT: We'll, in the parliament, when I joined, there's more than a third parliamentarians that are women. And nowadays it's more than 40%. So, gender mainstreaming and equality has already been one of our points in making sure that people from all different backgrounds and different preferences are treated with respect, and as you know, both Premier Su Tseng-chang and also President Tsai Ing-wen made marriage equality LGBTIQ rights, their priority politically. So, I think that's already there. I wouldn't say that it changed because of me. But I would say that, I made this fact, that gender mainstreaming work for more than 12 years, the marriage equality and so on, more visible around the world, that maybe is my contribution. But the culture and support is already there.
AI: Taiwan was once a very conservative society, wasn't it? Why do you think this changed?
AT: I think there are, there are two main reasons. One is that the public service really committed to work with the civil society leaders when it comes to gender mainstreaming in the gender equality committee to build the impact assessment, evidence-based projects together. And the civil society leaders always have one more vote than the ministers in the Gender Equality Committee. So it remains true to its civil society roots and that's a very good design that ensures that everyone in the public service when proposing for budget, when proposing for draft amendments to the law, and so on, they all have to understand the gender impacts of each and every action that they do.
And the second reason is that the statistics, the dashboard, the gender impact dashboard, it just keeps running. So even after the budgeted project runs its course, the gender impact it created is still being monitored for more than a decade for some projects now. So, people formulated a theory of change together. Again, it means that a civil society is not just demonstrating against or protesting against something, it's demonstrating for something, demonstrating something works, and working with the people. So, I think the same theory of people-public-private partnership, that was so successful in counter-pandemic and infodemic, also has the same shape in the gender equality work in the past couple of decades.
AI: When you were in elementary school, you spent some time away from school due to be being bullied. There are children in Japan, too, who cannot attend school for the same reasons. What would you say to those students?
AT: First, that it's not your fault, don't blame yourself because of some other people's issues. So, like yourself, that's the most important thing. And the second thing is, it's not just you, it's a structural thing. So, make your authentic experience, a kind of reason to look at possibilities for systemic change, and speak out. So unmute yourself. So it boils down to two messages: like yourself and unmute yourself.
Tang Feng was born in Taipei in 1981. Their English name is Audrey Tang. Aged 8, Tang began self-studying computer programming. They stopped attending school from junior high school, and learned about math, artificial intelligence (AI), philosophy, economics and other subjects by themselves. Following activities in Taiwan's IT industry, they went to the U.S., and at age 19 began a software firm in Silicon Valley. They achieved international success in the field of programming, and also worked as an advisor to Apple Inc., among other appointments. In 2016, they were appointed as a Minister without Portfolio to Taiwan's Cabinet, the Executive Yuan. In their 20s, Tang announced they are transgender.
Akira Ikegami was born in central Japan's Nagano Prefecture in 1950. In 1973, he joined public broadcaster NHK, and worked in roles including as a reporter and as a newscaster. Since 2005, he has been a freelance journalist, and he travels across the world investigating stories, and is also a writer and a news commentator for various media organizations. With the Mainichi Shimbun, he does an interview once a month with leading figures in a variety of fields.