The US recorded its first coronavirus case on January 20, 2020. Taiwan recorded its first case the next day. Now, more than eight months later, as the virus has infected 7.2 million Americans and killed more than 205,000, Taiwan has all but returned to normal. Movies, baseball games, concerts attended by tens of thousands of people, that’s all happening. In total, just 150 people have contracted the virus so far. And the national death toll? Seven. So how did Taiwan do it?
It helped that back in December, while the coronavirus was just starting to spread inside the Chinese city of Wuhan and the World Health Organization was still months away from declaring a global pandemic, the Taiwanese government deployed its equivalent of the US Defense Production Act to produce masks for its citizens. Army personnel went to work in mask-making factories to churn out enough supplies for the entire country. “The idea early on was to get three-quarters of the population into the habit of wearing masks and hand sanitation,” Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s youngest-ever digital minister told WIRED senior correspondent, Adam Rogers. In the same way that vaccines can produce herd immunity, if enough people get the shot, a majority of people in masks can achieve a similar effect.
But it was releasing supply chain data to the public that allowed those masks to get where they needed to go. Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system, the government-run single-payer health insurer, maintains a database of all the products that its nation-wide network of pharmacies have in stock, updated in real time. Tang proposed building a mask-rationing system on top of that. Swipe your card, get your allocated quota of masks.
And crucially, she also pushed to release that data to the general public, via an open API. Once the project was greenlit, Tang invited a group of civic-minded hackers to have at it. And they did, building more than 140 apps, including maps showing which pharmacies still had supplies, visualizations of how many masks had been distributed and where, and voice assistants for the visually impaired.
Tang says the insights allowed the government to see more vividly how it was failing some of its citizens, namely those in rural areas who didn’t have easy access to the pharmacies. So the government revised the strategy, introducing pre-ordering at convenience stores to fill in the gaps. “We make sure technologies come to where people are, adapt to people’s needs and empower people closest to the pain to be technologists,” says Tang. “In other words, build competence not literacy.”
And the experience provided even more space for mutual innovation as new challenges arose. How to handle nightclubs became a particularly thorny problem. The densely packed, poorly ventilated spaces had spawned superspreading events in places like South Korea. However, the Taiwanese government was wary of closing the industry down for fear of driving those activities underground, losing visibility of the virus, and making the situation more unpredictable. The problem was, they needed nightclub employees and patrons to cooperate with contact tracing efforts. And that would mean giving up some privacy. “It looks like a tradeoff,” says Tang. “But it’s only a tradeoff if you do not innovate.”
Instead of ordering the clubs to close down, they were told they could stay open if they booted up a “real contact” system, meaning that nightclubs didn’t need to keep track of people’s real names or identities as long as they had an effective way of reaching them. Then they let the club owners figure out how to make it work. And innovate they did—producing systems for code names, single-use emails, and burner phone numbers on top of social distancing and enforcing mask mandates. It put everyone on the same team, strengthening the social fabric of the pandemic response rather than fraying it further.
The power of the approach extends beyond the current pandemic, says Tang. Instead of just receiving data, messages, and narratives, in a technologically vested democracy, citizens can be producers of these things. In other words: Give people data, give them the power to write their own fate and that of their nation. As Tang put it: “Reliable data is the foundation of trust.”
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