Instead of requesting that the clubs closed, they were told they could remain open if they introduced a “real contact” system – meaning that night clubs didn’t have to keep track of people’s real names and identities as long as they had an effective way of reaching them.
The US officially reported their first coronavirus on January 20, 2020. The following day Taiwan reported its first case. Taiwan has now returned to normal almost seven months after the virus has infected 7.2 million Americans and killed more than 205,000. Movies, baseball games, concerts attended by tens of thousands of people… It all happened. So far the virus has only affected 150 people in total. And the national death rate? Seven How did Taiwan make this happen?
It helped that the Taiwanese government deployed its equivalent of the US Defense Production Act in December, while coronavirus just started spreading in the Chinese city of Wuhan and the World Health Organization was still months away from declaring a global pandemic. Army personnel went to work in mask manufacturing factories to produce enough for the whole country. “The idea was to get three-quarters of the population to wear masks and handwashing,” said Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s youngest digital minister, to WIRED senior correspondent Adam Rogers. Similarly, in the same way that vaccines can produce herd immunity, a majority of people’s in masks can achieve the same effect if enough people are shot.
It was publicizing supply chain data that allowed those masks to get the place where they needed to go. The National Health Insurance System of Taiwan, the government-funded single payer insurance system maintains a database of all the products it has in stock with its national network of pharmacy pharmacies, updated in real time. On top of that, Tang proposed to build a mask rationing system. Tap your card to get your allocated mask quota.
And she also pushed to revoke and sell this data via an open API to the general public. Once the project was greenlighted, Tang invited a group of civic hackers to have a look at it. And they did, creating more than 140 apps, including maps showing which pharmacies still had supplies, visuals of how many masks had been distributed and where, and voice assistants for the visually impaired.
Tang says the insights helped the government to see more clearly how it was failing some of its citizens, namely those in rural areas who did not have easy access to pharmacy services. So the government revised the strategy and introduced pre-orders in convenience stores to fill in the gaps. We make sure technology comes to where people are, adapts to people’s needs and empowers people closest to pain to be technologists,” Tang says. In other words, improve competence… not literacy.
And the experience created even more space for mutual innovation as new challenges emerged. How to handle night clubs became a particularly thorny problem. The densely packed, poorly ventilated spaces had caused Superspreading events in places like South Korea. Taiwanese government was wary, however, of closing the industry out of fear that they could drive those activities underground, lose visibility of the virus and make the situation more unpredictable. The problem was that they needed nightclub staff and patrons to cooperate with contact tracking efforts. And that would be the sacrifice of some privacy. It looks like a trade-off, explains Tang. But it is only a trade-off if you do not innovate”.
Instead of order the clubs to close down, they were told they could remain open if they launched a “real contact” system – meaning that night clubs 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 find out how to make it work. And that’s exactly what they innovated—producing systems for code names, single-use emails and burner phone numbers on top of social distancing and the application of mask mandates. It put everyone on the same team, strengthening the social fabric of the Pandemic Response instead of ramifying it further.
Tang said that the power of the approach goes beyond the current pandemic. In a technologically controlled democracy, citizens can be producers of these things rather than simply receiving data, messages and narratives. [Borgos] In other words, give people the data they need to put their own fate and the fate of their nation into writing. Tang wrote it as follows: “Reliable data is the foundation of trust.”
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