Social Innovation Needs You

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Technology can strengthen civil society, build trust, help tackle the climate crisis and improve health governance. An interview with Audrey Tang (唐鳳), Digital Minister of Taiwan, outstanding computing personality with a clear vision for a fair digital world.

As a Digital Minister of Taiwan, what’s your vision of modern society in the era of digital technologies? What worries you most when you look at the technological advancements, for example, Artificial Intelligence, and what inspires your hope?

Society’s use of technology reflects the perception of value. In Taiwan, we care about is whether digital technologies bring public benefits to society as a whole. The development of new technology makes people worry about losing job opportunities and artificial intelligence machines may compete with humans, but it also leads to more exploration of human potential.

When we talk about AI, we think of Augmented Intelligence or Assistive Intelligence. That is to say, it helps us to make things that are routine, that are trivial, that people don’t want to do.

Another two A(s) about AI — Alignment and Accountability — go with this assistive objective. That’s what you would expect to assist person to a disabled person. They need to be value-aligned to them, to their agency. Also, there needs to be accountability for the decisions made on that person’s behalf. I think assistive captures the twin aspects of accountability and value alignment, for me, when it comes to AI.

In addition, AI can augment our collective intelligence. For example, sorting through hundreds of thousands of input from citizens is very, very tedious. Now that we have a way for AI to power this conversation at scale, a hundred thousand people can listen to one another because the facilitation is in AI. The more people join, the better the quality.

Using AI to power conversation, we can scale the idea of listening so that we can scale to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people talking together. People can still listen to each other’s main points. This is how we are using AI to power our public service consultation. One example of this is called—an AI-powered conversation platform that very cleverly takes away the chores but opens up the agenda-setting for people.

Open source, open society “pray” (source: Audrey Tang on Twitter)

How can digitalization improve policy-making in healthcare?

During the initial COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CECC) immediately connected the NHI MediCloud System to the border entry database. When medical staff accessed the NHI Cards of the public, they immediately learned of travel histories, occupations, contact, and cluster histories. This reduced contact risks for front-line medical personnel and allowed traffic to be diverted in time to prevent nosocomial infection.

In July 2021, the 1922 COVID-19 Publicly Funded Vaccine Appointment Platform was launched. All citizens and residents over the age of 18, who are willing to vaccinate, go to the website to register. As soon as their age and qualifications are met and the number of vaccines nominated is sufficient, they will receive an SMS message from 1922.

Registration of willingness is particularly useful in Taiwan, as there were different types of vaccines, with subsequent doses arriving at different times. By registering, the public can play an invaluable role in enabling the platform to accurately assess the willingness and ensure the effective allocation of available vaccines in a timely manner.

By December 2021, the population coverage rate of the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine reached 80%, and the second dose of vaccine coverage rate reached 60%.

What are the technologies that helped Taiwan most to manage the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on the world. The challenge of tackling the virus, and the social problems it has caused, is straining the capabilities of governments around the world.

In Taiwan, however, we see a silver lining in the dark clouds. The pandemic has strengthened our model of collaboration between people, government, and the private sector, deepening what I call “people-public-private” partnerships. This is because we have built a digital infrastructure that lets people freely express opinions on policy reforms.

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.

Our contact-tracing system 1922 SMS is another case in point. It was a solution jointly proposed by civic tech communities in Taiwan to ensure both privacy protection and efficient contact-tracing. When Taiwan encountered its first wave of COVID-19 infections in May 2021, the g0v community—spelled with a zero in place of the “o” and pronounced “gov-zero”—a decentralized group of “civic hackers” in Taiwan, swung into action. Civic technologists enthusiastically discussed how to improve existing registration systems, which primarily relied on paper and pencil, or primitive web forms and were often confusing or counter-productive to virus suppression measures.

Inspired by these discussions, we worked with Taiwan’s five leading telecoms firms to develop 1922 SMS. By scanning a QR code using a smartphone camera and sending a text message to the toll-free number 1922, check-in records are created and stored—with no need for an app. When necessary, contact tracers can retrieve data from the system for quick and effective tracing. From discussion to deployment, the 1922 SMS system was built in a week. This would not have been possible without a robust partnership between the public and private sectors and the people.

“Governments shouldn’t formulate top-down policies, dictating paths to direct people to public services. Instead, they should build public-private-people partnerships.”

You often talk about digital social innovation instead of just digital innovation. Whats the difference?

Social innovation refers to using innovative methods, such as digital technology and cross-disciplinary cooperation, to find effective solutions to social and environmental challenges. 

Social innovation means “everyone’s problem; everyone helps”: Everyone uses innovative methods to spontaneously invest and participate in things that contribute to the world, and then change the relationship between different groups in society and find solutions for the common problems.

Digital innovation is just one of the methods to implement social innovation, which does not have to be exclusively digital. As long as we recognize common values, make good use of existing foundations and technologies, and invite partners everywhere to collaborate, we will have opportunities to solve social problems and help more people.

You also advocate for open data, partnerships, and digital skills that should become one of the sustainable development goals. Can you please explain it?

In the public sector, by opening data, partnerships and digital skills make harnessing the energy spread across sectors as a driving force for policy innovation, and by allowing the concept of “working with the people” to permeate public policy-making.

In other words, by unleashing the power inherent in the “crowdsourcing” of democracy. When it comes to solving problems, a government should not look to formulate top-down policies, dictating paths to direct people to public services. Still, it should instead build Public–Private–People partnerships that are guided directly by the needs of the people.

Taiwan continually implements programs to encourage these partnerships. For example, the country’s Presidential Hackathon invites citizens from around the world to propose open-data solutions to global issues that will create a more sustainable world—including ways to reduce energy use, empower smart citizens and promote investment in circular agriculture. The event is an opportunity for the social, public, and private sectors to collaborate on digital innovations that link data across sectors in ways that resolve social problems. The winning teams are invited to participate in government initiatives, and the systems that they develop receive support from the public and/or private sectors, as appropriate.

In recent years, humanity has faced severe retaliation from nature. We see warning signs everywhere, from fire outbreaks in the Amazon rainforest severely devastating the environment, to the melting of glaciers triggering rises in sea levels. Currently, more than 120 countries have proposed to achieve the target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Therefore, we have decided on the 2022 Presidential Hackathon International Track theme: Climate Action: Practicing Net-Zero.

It is our hope for the Presidential Hackathon to become a platform for civic hackers from around the world to contribute to global issues such as disaster warnings, post-crisis recovery, and adjustment, carbon footprint survey, and implementing greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Any international “hacker” who wishes to help find solutions can put forth a proposal and collaborate in taking concrete action to mitigate climate change.

What are the digital tools implemented recently in Taiwanese healthcare that you are proud of?

During COVID-19, we’ve seen signs of democracy backsliding as authoritarian regimes justify human rights violations in the name of public health and the greater good. In Taiwan, we combat the pandemic with no lockdowns and the infodemic with no takedowns. Effective counter-pandemic measures, including the mask distribution system and SMS-based contact-tracing system, began as civic technologies from the social sector. They were amplified by governments and businesses working hand in hand. This people-public-private partnership is a model we’re proud to share.

An example of such partnerships is the abovementioned Presidential Hackathon, which does not offer prize money—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.

In 2020, Prof. Lung, a long-time researcher on heat injury risk, together with the Central Weather Bureau and the Health Promotion Administration, signed up for the “Presidential Hackathon” to develop Taiwan’s first weather alert platform for healthcare, Health Weather Tog-E-ther, which allows users to see their health risks by simply opening the Tog-E-ther app.

Tog-E-ther was selected as one of the outstanding teams of the Presidential Hackathon in 2020. It was expected that at least 13 million people would benefit from the platform when it was officially launched at the end of the year.

In my opinion, with our world’s-first health insurance database and solid local weather research, Tog-E-ther not only actively linked up with the existing promotion applications of various departments but also successfully pushed for the amendment of regulations, showing us that academic foundation could be the cornerstone of social innovation—it is indeed the best model of serving the public together.

Digitalization makes our lives safer and more convenient, but we must co-create them with the trust and support of society.

Digitalization is a process of societal transformation that requires society’s trust and backing. How to arouse it?

Digitalization makes our lives safer and more convenient, but we must co-create them with the trust and support of society.

The SMS-based contact-tracing system is a great example. To eliminate community transmission, contact-tracing must be done rapidly and effectively. Inaccurate information will put us in the dilemma of having to choose between protecting privacy and preventing the pandemic; rolling out a mandatory government app would only backfire. So instead of centralizing contact-tracing data or yielding control to multinational corporations, we sought social-sector solutions “with” the people.

Last year, civic technologists in the g0v community invented a mechanism of contact-tracing based on text messages; we worked across sectors with telecom carriers to deploy the 1922 SMS contact-tracing system in a week.

By scanning a QR code with your phone’s built-in camera and sending a toll-free text message, people can keep track of their itineraries. This allows contact tracers to confirm the footprints of infected people and their contacts without revealing any private information to venue owners.

This collaboration cannot happen without strong trust across sectors. Of course, we need to bridge the digital gap for the elderly and visually impaired — so contact-tracing can still be done through measures such as handwriting.

When contact tracers apply for information about certain phone numbers, they submit requests through this platform to browse them. The phone number holder can then reverse-audit contact tracers’ requests and activities. All records are deleted after 28 days.

Because this civic tech originated from a community that has always valued personal data sovereignty, we can respond to new challenges with timely improvements. For instance, text messages sent to 1922 were discovered by a judge assessing a police search warrant. Fortunately, the multiparty design prevented the police from accessing the mapping between the random codes and specific venues.

The judge denied the warrant and publicly questioned the legality of wiretapping texts sent to 1922. Following discussions, the Ministry of Justice concluded that the 1922 SMS does not constitute communication under the Communication Security and Surveillance Act—therefore, it should not be repurposed for law enforcement, keeping the original civic intent intact.

Audrey Tang presents how deep fake works:

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