interview  | 

The civic hacker that became Digital Minister of Taiwan: interview with Audrey Tang

"There is massive speculation on the price of surgical masks."

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Audrey Tang is a civic hacker and Taiwan’s Digital Minister in charge of Social Innovation. She is known for revitalizing global open source communities such as Perl and Haskell. Audrey served on Taiwan National Development Council’s open data committee and K-12 curriculum committee; and led the country’s first e-Rulemaking project. Prior to joining the cabinet, Audrey was a consultant with Apple on computational linguistics, with Oxford University Press on crowd lexicography, and with Socialtext on social interaction design.

You describe yourself as a civic hacker and a “conservative anarchist”. Can you tell us what that means and why you identify with these terms?

Yes. A civic hacker is not a cybersecurity hacker. In cybersecurity, we have white hat hackers who will get into the vulnerabilities and security flaws of the system and tell you how to repair it, or there are black hat hackers that use those flaws for personal gain and benefits. We’re not exploiting those loopholes in democracy for personal gain. Rather, we’re about building new tools in a democracy that can better reflect the collective will and rough consensus of the entire citizenship and entire society. That is what civic hacker means.

Conservative, for me, means conserving the various different cultures in Taiwan. In Taiwan, we have 20 different national languages, many indigenous people and waves of immigrants and people from all over the world. Taiwan is a very cosmopolitan country. What we have in Taiwan is instead of one culture dominating the other in the name of progress and actually making other cultures lose their diversity and inclusion, we have put a lot of emphasis on conserving views from different cultures.

What is social innovation and what led you into this particular area?

Social innovation means very simply innovation that is open to participation from society, and at the same time good for society. Whereas the civic technologist focuses on SDGs 16, which is about institution and democracy, social innovators can be found in every other sustainable goal as well, from climate change to zero poverty and hunger, and things like that.

What draws me to social innovation is that it’s a much more inclusive term than participatory climate action, civic tech for democracy, and so on. These are all good, but it’s actually only through working across silos of innovators that we can truly see that a lot of the patterns that we discover, for example, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, apply to the entire swathe of social innovation scenarios regardless which sector it originates from.

Let’s now speak about Taiwan and radical transparency. In the 1990s Taiwan remained controlled by martial law, and yet today it sits among Asia's most progressive and principled democracies. Taiwan boasts one of the region’s most transparent public administrations. What led to this massive shift in paradigm for Taiwan?

Definitely, I will say it was personal computers and then the Internet. Taiwan was one of the main manufacturing places for personal computers. When I was young, everybody had very early access to personal computers, because it was all made in Taiwan.

I would say that in Taiwan, the people who innovate with technology and people who innovate with bureaucracy are the same people.

We are the first generation of people who can innovate in both regards.

That gives a civic spirit so that people feel that we own democracy because it is relatively new to us, it’s only 30 years old.

We have so much to learn from you, really. Taiwan also ranks among the world’s top 10 digital governments using emerging technologies to inspire greater public engagement with government. What key lesson can be drawn from Taiwan government experiments in open, technologically driven governance?

There’s two key lessons. The first is that the government should trust citizens without requiring the citizens to trust back. By saying this, we mean transparency as in making the state transparent to citizens, but we must never ask citizens to be transparent to the state, because that would be authoritarianism.

We need to be very careful about our use of the words like transparency, and define it always in a way that the government trusts citizens first.

The other lesson I would like to share is that we’re always bringing technology to people, rather than asking people to come to technology. This way people are getting more included into the democratic process instead of just forcing people to speak the language of bureaucracy, or maybe traveling to Taipei to deliver a five minute speech in a public hearing. If you’re asking people to come to technology you’re actually excluding more and more people.

How important is it that the private and public sector innovate together?

In Taiwan, we say that the social sector has the most legitimacy. We try not to say “third sector,” because it somehow sounds like they have a bronze medal or something like that, so we say social sector. The private sector has plenty of room to innovate, for example, to make more precise measurements, to have better transaction rates on the blockchain technology that underlies this shared ledger. The private sector always conforms to the social norm, just as the public sector does, and when we both conform to the social norm, we naturally become partners.

There is less of this public-private tension, between the state owning something and the private sector owning something, because whatever we do, we’re doing this for the common goals that we share.

Your guiding principle of ‘radical transparency’ seeks to inspire greater democratic participation and empowerment of citizens through digital infrastructure – to inform, collaborate, and humanise interactions between the government and its people. Are governments and cities ready for greater input from citizens?

Yeah. I think all governments are ready for more input. What they are not ready for is more noise. The main thing that people worry about is that if you open a comment board, then the astroturfers and trolls will dominate the day and all you get is noise and you get no signal from it. A lot of the design decisions can basically make a toxic society unintentionally, but if you design with the intention of pro-social conversations that look to reflect people’s true feelings and true, authentic social preferences rather than positions or ideologies, then you can get useful signals just by cross moderating and assistive intelligence.

Let’s now speak a bit about emerging technology and cybersecurity. What is Taiwan currently doing to foster innovation and technology?

In Taiwan, what we are doing is making sure that everybody has access to innovation and technology. We put a lot of emphasis on education, and we just rolled out a new curriculum last year that focuses on digital competence rather than literacy. When we empower all the different schools in Taiwan, a lot of people ask me, what about people in rural places, in places without a lot of teachers that are specialized in such skills. The answer is that we make use of what we call co-teaching. We have a rural teacher that takes care of the learning incentive, the inspiring of those teacher-student relationships in a day-to-day fashion. They may not be experts in, for example, digital rights or things like that, but they can connect them to a larger municipal classroom, and so the two classes sit virtually in the same room through wall-sized projections and immersive reality.

5G connectivity, AI and Blockchain will create huge opportunities worldwide. What are the biggest social and environmental challenges that can be solved by data, connectivity and emerging technology?

I think it is social distrust. As I said, the previous generation of antisocial media really created different silos in society that tend to reinforce existing ideologies that exclude certain people. We are dealing with a more fragmented global society now. Most people are holding very different views across different countries, or even within a country across different cultures. A trans-cultural vision of society where people understand how they can step into other cultural shoes and describe their own upbringing using these cultural languages rather than writing them off, I think that is one of the main societal challenges.

We can see it, for example, whenever there is an emergency that happens that makes society panic or fear about a certain thing. For example, just recently, early February this year in Taiwan, there is massive speculation on the price of surgical masks. We’re not alone. Everywhere in East Asia from Hong Kong, through Singapore, through Japan, there is a social norm where people, because they don’t want to infect their community, puts on surgical masks just on the slightest flu-like symptoms.

It’s a different social norm compared to European cities, but it is true in Asian society. In Taiwan, there’s a lot of uncertainty and doubt about the accessibility of the surgical mask. Within 48 hours, our team of national health insurers designed – and I personally coded – a mask map. Everybody can see where the nearby pharmacies are or the stock level is, and refresh every 30 seconds, so that you can go into a pharmacy, present your NHI card, and get a pair of masks immediately, and you can refresh your phone. There are more than 100 different applications based on this real-time open data, and you see its stock deplete by two.

You trust the pharmacists more, because you know that they’re tapping into the right shared open data pool. The pharmacists trust the government more, because they know that the distribution is fair and equal. The government trusts the citizens more, because then there is no way to speculate if you know that there is going to be more masks supplied at lower prices as the days goes on.

There’s very little speculation and no panic when it comes to masks distribution in Taiwan. That shows the power of the connectivity and the radical transparency that people can really reflect on the current real set of data that describes the society and what the society cares about.

Instead of accusing each other to pollute the data stream through speculation and things like that, people devote their energy into making this commonsense of the sensing of the current fear, uncertainty, and doubt, into a creative energy. This is just one of the recent examples of how a social fear can be mitigated through radical transparency and open data.

As governments around the world expand their digital resources, they also inevitably become bigger targets for hackers. How can honest governments stay ahead of the ‘bad guys’ and preserve public trust?

I think the most important thing is to make sure that the white hat hackers become a preferred career for people interested in cybersecurity. In Taiwan, we allocate three to five percent of all new government ministerial initiatives on cybersecurity alone, penetration testing, advanced cyber threat hunting, designing for the cybersecurity defense in depth, and things like that, to make sure that people who are interested in cybersecurity decide to work with the government, and get paid handsomely. It is this culture of cherishing the white hat hacker and making sure that it is a career choice that people feel proud entering into, can we truly empower the general citizenry to have awareness on cybersecurity, rather than over-relying on a handful of experts.

How do you feel education will transform worldwide with the rise of digital learning?

I think mainly, digital learning enables us to see the different cultures as collaborators, rather than as others or aliens. If all you learn is with people with a very similar cultural upbringing. It’s very easy to develop us versus them behavior or thinking that talks about the social needs internally but cares less about these global phenomena. It’s only through establishing global norms about transparency, about accountability, about access to data, and things like that can we truly solve global-scale issues.

Altogether, I think this makes a digital culture that is shared among all the digital natives, no matter which original culture they came from. That in turn provides a much more collaborative nature to the younger citizenry, so they’re more prepared to network with their very different cultural counterparts across different time zones to tackle global challenges.

Do you think the digital gender divide is likely to disappear over the next few years or do you see it widening?

It will disappear in some places, and it will widen in other places. As I said, technology is just an amplifier. In some corners of the world with a good balance and a good mechanism design, that is participatory, we will see more and more divides just dissipate without people even caring about the particular mechanism that enabled it to happen, because it will be just the social norm. This is what Taiwan is. In other places where the gender divides are widening, it is not because of the Internet. Rather, it is because the Internet served as an amplifier to propagate the social norm that women are only fit for something or the men are only fit for something. You probably have to start in a more inclusive and equal fashion in your philosophy, in your language, in your mechanism design, and the Internet amplifies that part.

You once said, “I’ve been shutting reality off and lived almost exclusively on the net for many years, because my brain knows for sure that I am a woman, but the social expectations demand otherwise”. In what ways did the net provide a safe haven for you? To what extent do you think the internet has helped us grow as a society, to become more open and understanding, particularly when it comes to gender and identity?

One of the core promises of the Internet is that there is no minority on the Internet. There are only communities. In traditional cultural thinking, we would call them subcultures, as if they are somehow smaller parts of the society. On the Internet, those subcultures are actually the core of the Internet communities. There really is no mainstream culture of the Internet. What does that even mean?

This kind of value-based community reinforces the idea that we are people that can contribute to the society, as opposed to a society that says you can contribute but only if you’re dressed in some way, or if you speak in some way, or things like that. It’s less about contribution. It’s more about social conformity in the face-to-face reality. Our culture is now the mainstream when it comes to politics, because the top politicians demonstrate their use of Internet memes, and cat pictures, and things like that. It’s like a gradual coming out of the subcultures. 

Let’s speak now about the future. What emerging technology do you predict will be the most significant disruptor of digital government within the next decade?

One of the most important disruptions will be the people realizing that collective intelligence is not only good for discovering and defining social problems, but also for developing and delivering solutions as well.

With the democratization of the materials as well as the knowhow of building, and also a renewed understanding about circular economy, people are equipped then to join the production process without relying on a central, massive, scalable factory of conversation with the existing private sector.

If we only empower the small and median enterprises, we’ll never get sufficient goods that feeds everybody in the citizenry. That is going to change because of democratization and access to the knowhow and the change from a linear economy mindset into a circular economy mindset.

And to close, what one piece of advice would you give to young people starting a career in innovation communication technology today?

I would say, to quote Leonard Cohen, he said, “There is a crack in everything, and that is how the light gets in”. Basically, be imperfect. Publish your drafts, making sure there is plenty of typo, because Ward Cunningham once observed that if you deliver something, it’s perfect… If you ask a question, and the question is so meticulously worded, nobody will answer you. If you provide a draft of a bad answer, all the experts come out and correct your mistake. That means that the currency of collaboration is actually mistakes, the cracks in everything.

If you dare to make mistakes, if you publish all your immature thoughts, and have a taste of getting people who complain about it, who correct you, and start networking with them as best friends, then you can make the innovation network work with your contribution in no time. If you want to spend years perfecting your contribution, not only it risks getting outdated by the time you’re ready for it, it actually prevents other people from participating in your creative work. The earlier in a creative work that you can start a network of drafts, the better. The later, the more perfectionist you are, the less the innovation community can do with you.