Audrey Tang brings civic tech to Taiwan's coronavirus pandemic response : Planet Money A global pandemic might not be the best time to try something new with technology. But Taiwan decided to do it anyway. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
NPR logo

Fork The Government

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/949764249/949890910" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Fork The Government

Fork The Government

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/949764249/949890910" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: This is the moment where we're supposed to ask you to show your support for PLANET MONEY by making a donation. But that's not exactly fun, so we made this little promo instead.

Is your current podcast a real clunker? Have you been stuck listening to a lemon? Come on down and trade up at the 2020 PLANET MONEY feed on your podcast app of choice. Our inventory is full of premium episodes, and we've got to make room for 2021. Bad credit? No credit? No problem. No problem. We've got interest rate explainers with 0% APR and no money down. Wonky economic origin stories with all the options. Fully loaded. Episodes on tariffs, auctions, monopolistic behavior, prices so low we're practically giving them away. In fact, we are giving them away twice a week. But it also takes money to make PLANET MONEY, which is why we're asking you. If you love what we do and are able to put your money where your ears are, head on over to donate.npr.org/planetmoney to make a donation to your local NPR station. That's donate.npr.org/planetmoney to help keep these squeaky-clean, turbo-boosted episodes of economic edutainment rolling off the showroom floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

You know that person at the supermarket who hops from line to line and is always trying to find the fastest one? That's this guy.

HOWARD WU: I don't know. Maybe I just don't like to waste time.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

Do you want to just say your name and title for us?

WU: My name is Howard Wu.

GONZALEZ: And you're kind of like a hacker? Or is that a good way to say what you do?

WU: Yes, I'm totally a developer

GONZALEZ: Howard Wu is a developer/hacker in Taiwan. And Howard isn't just interested in saving his own time. He is what is called a civic hacker. He's interested in saving a bunch of people's time. Civic tech hackers are basically random people who know how to code and develop apps and things like that, who see public problems that are not being solved by the government and then volunteer their time and skills to try to fix the problem. They're, like, the good hackers.

WOODS: So for example, he once made a map to track the locations of garbage trucks where he lives in Tainan because Howard Wu says he was wasting a lot of time waiting for the garbage truck.

GONZALEZ: In the U.S., you take your garbage out, and then a garbage truck comes whenever they come. Like, you don't have to wait for them. Is it - that's not how it is where you were?

WU: No, no, no. In Taiwan, we are not allowed to leave our garbage on the street.

WOODS: Oh.

GONZALEZ: In Taiwan, you have to wait for the garbage truck to show up at your home, then bring your garbage bags down. It's like putting your kids on the school bus. You can't just leave your garbage on the street and go on with your day. Taiwan must be much cleaner than the United States.

WU: Yeah, actually.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

WOODS: So Howard created an app to track the location of garbage trucks. With his new app, Howard could see how far away the truck was, maybe jump in the shower without having to worry about his trash not getting picked up. Howard's made, like, a hundred of these little hacks to solve public problems. And when the coronavirus started spreading in January, he got to work making more hacks.

GONZALEZ: Before people in the U.S. could even imagine having to wear masks everywhere, people in Taiwan were all trying to get their hands on them, on medical masks, like, really early on back in January.

WOODS: But stores were selling out fast. You didn't know where to go for one. So Howard decided to make a medical mask tracker, kind of like his garbage truck tracker.

GONZALEZ: And there's a word for this kind of thing in the hacker/coder community, a word for when you have one system that you copy but then build on.

WU: You can fork that.

GONZALEZ: You can fork it?

WU: Yeah, fork. It's called fork.

WOODS: It's like creating a new path, a fork.

GONZALEZ: Howard's new app showed which stores in Taiwan still had masks and which didn't. It's a seemingly small innovation, but Howard's mask map is symbolic of this really special approach that Taiwan has taken to fight the virus. They have decided to hack their way out of the pandemic.

WOODS: They decided to take some chances, experiment a little with technology. And it looks like it's working. Taiwan has basically been COVID-free all this time. Since April, there's only been one local case - one local case in eight months. And their success is not just because they're an island.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDERIC AUGER'S "SOUVENIR DANSANT")

WOODS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Taiwan never had a lockdown - none. They've had a total of seven COVID deaths - seven this entire time. Just 56 people have contracted COVID locally.

WOODS: To put that into context, Taiwan has about the same population as the state of Florida, and Florida has had over a million cases and more than 20,000 deaths. Today on the show, how Taiwan did it and why the U.S. probably never would.

GONZALEZ: By the way, after Howard's garbage truck tracker, the city made their own version.

WU: Yeah, the government improved that.

WOODS: So they forked you?

WU: Actually, yeah. Everybody can fork that.

WOODS: (Laughter).

WU: It's OK. Improve the world, right?

WOODS: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Improve the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: All right. There is a lot of frustration in the U.S. right now with how the government is handling this pandemic. And 17 years ago, there was a lot of frustration in Taiwan for how their government was handling a different respiratory virus, SARS. Taiwan was one of the hardest-hit countries. Seventy-three people died of SARS, which sounds like absolutely nothing in today's numbers. But back then, it was this big, scary situation.

WOODS: There were a few cases inside this one hospital. So the government decided to lock it down without any warning, without even enough protective equipment. Doctors and nurses were holding banners to the windows, demanding to be let out. It was bad.

GONZALEZ: It was a bad situation, and the government responded badly. So Taiwan spent the next several years passing all of these laws for how to handle the next epidemic better. And part of the plan they put in place was to get people masks fast, at the first sign of a new respiratory virus. And Taiwan made it easy on everyone. They said the only stores in all of Taiwan that will sell medical masks are convenience stores. Just go there or to a pharmacy. So don't waste your time trying to find masks at a gas station or a mall or hardware stores. Just go straight to convenience stores. There are thousands of them.

WOODS: But we human beings never seem to act how government bureaucrats want us to. People started showing up at mask factories, trying to get masks at the source because the lines at convenience stores were incredibly long. And often by the time you got to the front, masks were sold out, and you'd have to wait in a different hours-long line.

GONZALEZ: And, you know, Howard Wu hates waiting in lines.

WU: (Laughter) Yeah.

GONZALEZ: So Howard thinks, I'm going to create something where people can report which stores still have masks.

WU: ...Anything to just save my time, save people's time. Yeah.

WOODS: He starts working on his app at midnight, February 2. He maps out all 10,000 convenience stores in Taiwan using a mapping programming interface from Google. If you go to a store that still has masks, you report it, and the store will show up in green. If they're sold out, red.

GONZALEZ: Howard works on this app all night into the morning, 10 hours. He clicks publish and goes to breakfast.

WU: And meet friends. And just a normal day.

WOODS: Google charges people like Howard to use their maps. They are a business. There's a tiny fee per user. Howard expects it might cost him $10, $20. But when he gets back from breakfast, he sees a lot of people are using his map.

WU: In the afternoon on the first day, I saw the price is 2,000 United States dollar.

WOODS: Oh.

WU: Just in the afternoon, yeah. It showed 2,000. And I saw if this tool can help people, I can afford $2,000. So I keep the website on live.

WOODS: Oh, I see. You're like, OK, $2,000, but it's...

WU: ...Affordable.

WOODS: You know, we're all doing our bit for the pandemic. And maybe that's just what I'm contributing.

WU: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Now, Howard's map isn't perfect. It's based on crowdsourcing, just people reporting which stores have masks and which don't. But people are so desperate for any information that by day two of the mask tracker map, 600,000 people are on the site.

WU: Six hundred thousand - that's right - 600,000.

GONZALEZ: Even government officials are using it. It's really useful. And with this kind of traffic, the fee from Google shoots up.

WU: It raising to 26,000. Yeah.

WOODS: Wow.

GONZALEZ: It went up to 26,000 U.S. dollars.

WOODS: That's starting to get a very, very decent amount of money there.

WU: Yeah, it's in United States dollar. And it was no kidding.

GONZALEZ: Howard was not going to be able to pay Google 26,000 U.S. dollars to keep his mask map up. But he doesn't shut his magic map down. Instead, Howard decides, I'm just going to ignore this little bill here.

WU: Yeah, that's right (laughter). What else you can do? Nothing.

WOODS: That's one way to deal with these terrifying...

GONZALEZ: Debts.

WU: Yeah, I actually - I have already considered to cut my credit card.

(LAUGHTER)

WOODS: You're just going to cut up your credit card?

WU: Yeah, I'm considering (laughter).

WOODS: Howard tells his civic hacker friends about the bill. They're all in a group called g0v. They're talking on Slack. And there's actually this person in the g0v group who's pretty high in government. It's Taiwan's digital minister. It's an official cabinet position. This cabinet member says, hey, Howard, I can help negotiate your bill with Google. Your map is clearly providing a service to the people of Taiwan.

GONZALEZ: And Taiwan's digital minister was on this hacker Slack message board because Taiwan's digital minister is also a civic hacker who happened to use Howard's mask map.

AUDREY TANG: Yeah, I did. So I contributed to his bill. Yes.

WOODS: This is Taiwan's digital minister, Audrey Tang.

GONZALEZ: And then where are you talking to us from?

TANG: ...From Earth, quite obviously, but in Taiwan.

GONZALEZ: I think from Earth is the best answer we've ever gotten to, (laughter) where are we talking to you from?

TANG: That's right, the same place as you are.

WOODS: That's right.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

WOODS: Audrey is this really respected coder around the world.

TANG: Yeah, of course, I code all the time.

WOODS: And Audrey became a politician after years of advocating for more transparency from the Taiwanese government. There were these massive protests over a trade deal with China back in 2014. Protesters occupied parliament, and Audrey helped run cables to livestream the whole thing, kind of like a renegade C-SPAN.

GONZALEZ: These protests were a really tense time in Taiwan, but the government that came into power after the protests decided to embrace this really open government stance. Audrey was tapped to be part of the new administration. And Audrey is just not like your typical politician.

TANG: You see - I'm working with the government. I'm not working for the government.

WOODS: Audrey's whole thing is transparency in government. So for example, when you interview Audrey Tang, Audrey Tang publishes the raw, two-hour, unpolished transcript online. So if you want to see what we're like unpolished, go there. Now, Google - they very quickly waived Howard's fee. It was a great use of Google's map interface, great PR opportunity. So there was ultimately no fee. That was not an issue. But Audrey thought Howard's mask map could be so much better. All it would take is convincing the government to trust a bunch of random coders with some real inside information. And as it happened, the Taiwanese government was just about to come into a bunch of super-relevant new data.

GONZALEZ: Remember, Howard had to crowdsource information because convenience stores don't publish what they sell online or anything like that. But the government in Taiwan can know in real time whenever a pharmacy sells something because Taiwan has a national government-run health care system.

WOODS: So the government says new plan. Given the mask shortages, we're going to ration masks. Now only pharmacies will be able to sell them, not convenience stores.

GONZALEZ: And then Audrey says, what if we gave civic hackers like Howard access to all our in-real-time pharmacy inventory so they can create a better map of every single mask in Taiwan down to the very last mask?

WOODS: Audrey goes to the Taiwanese premier, kind of like a prime minister, and says we should make the pharmacy mask inventory public for the hackers. And the premier agrees.

TANG: I'm not the one that made the decision, but I'm the one that connects this pharmacy rationing idea to Howard's visualization idea. These were two very different groups of people, and I just kind of served as a bridge between the two.

GONZALEZ: Audrey convinced the government to let hackers hack them.

WOODS: You're talking we can almost fork the government.

TANG: Right. Right, exactly. Fork the government. Pronunciation very important - fork the government (laughter).

WOODS: Yeah, that's right (laughter).

A thousand hacker coders joined a virtual hackathon. Just six days after Howard's first map, everyone in Taiwan knew exactly which pharmacies still had masks. While the U.S. was still getting mixed messages about whether masks were even useful or not, Taiwan was saying, yes, they are. And you can use these hacker maps to find them.

GONZALEZ: And by releasing the data that they did, the government really put its faith in civic hackers that they wouldn't throw in malicious lines of code or something like that. And the government didn't need to do any of this. But they basically said there's no way we can solve or anticipate every problem during a pandemic. So we're going to turn to our own smart citizens to help. And Taiwan's government isn't relying just on benevolent coders. After the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, Taiwan decided, listen, we're an island. And if we want to keep our island pandemic free the next time around, we're going to have to quarantine anyone who enters the country for 14 days.

WOODS: Other countries have done this, too, like Australia and New Zealand. But there, you're forced to stay in a government-run hotel during your quarantine.

GONZALEZ: In Taiwan, you have a choice. You can either go to a supervised hotel. Or if you have your own bathroom, you can quarantine at home, more freedom. But there is one big condition. There's a digital quarantine, too. Your phone cannot leave the house.

WOODS: Taiwan decided to track the location of phones in quarantine.

GONZALEZ: It's kind of like a digital fence.

WOODS: They don't know which room you're in. It's not that precise. But they know the block. And in case you want to be sneaky and leave your phone at home. No, the government calls you twice a day randomly.

GONZALEZ: This digital fence, the phone tracking, it is not something Taiwan's government could just snap their fingers and do as some impulsive response to the coronavirus. Taiwan is a democracy. The legislature actually decided years ago, way before COVID, that they could restrict people's freedom during an emergency with these kinds of quarantines and that they could kind of put privacy protections aside for the sake of protecting its people from a pandemic.

WOODS: The government tracks phones by tapping into cellphone tower data. In the U.S., 911 operators use this sometimes if they can't find you.

GONZALEZ: Even though, yes, our cellphone towers know where we are already, it just - I can't imagine the United States doing something like this.

TANG: Well, we didn't imagine that the first time around in 2003 either, right?

WOODS: And here's how it all works. You get $33 U.S. a day to stay in quarantine. If your phone leaves the digital fence or if you let the phone run out of battery and turn off, a medical officer shows up at your house. If it turns out you broke quarantine, you owe Taiwan up to $33,000 U.S.

TANG: It's a lot of money, so they don't tend to break the quarantine. But yes, in general, such an astronomical fine is reserved for behaviors that would actually endanger the whole country. But in the case of COVID, that's exactly the case. And that is approved by, of course, the legislature.

GONZALEZ: Only about 770 people have gotten COVID in Taiwan out of 24 million people. And most of them, almost all of them, were people who were traveling into Taiwan from somewhere else and went straight into quarantine. So those cases never had the chance to spread around the country, right? Less than 60 cases were infected locally. So life has gone on in Taiwan as usual. No lockdowns. They actually even had a little bit of economic growth in the first half of 2020, too, while most other economies were crashing. And bars and restaurants are doing better than normal because instead of people leaving Taiwan to go on vacation, they're eating out a lot within Taiwan.

WOODS: Taiwan has done a bunch of things to fight the virus. Besides mandatory quarantines and phone quarantines, they have this huge campaign to fight misinformation online. They've taken serious testing and tracing. And they've been praised for their work with civic tech hackers.

GONZALEZ: After the break, would the U.S. ever do something like this? And would we even want to?

WOODS: There is plenty of civic tech hacking going on in the U.S. Governments have released data so that civic hackers can do all kinds of things like improve food assistance programs in California or just make the DMV better but not to the same extent as what's been happening in Taiwan during the pandemic.

ANDREW SCHROCK: I can definitely talk about why it's not happening in the United States.

WOODS: Andrew Schrock is an academic. He's written a few books on civic tech.

GONZALEZ: Technologically speaking, Andrew says, the United States is perfectly capable of making a medical mask tracker like the one that Taiwan made. Like, we have plenty of civic hacker coders in the United States. We have plenty of Howards. But what we don't have, Andrew says, is someone as high up in government who wants to work with civic hackers.

So what we don't have is enough Audreys in the United States.

SCHROCK: Correct. I think if we had more Audreys in the United States, that would be a great thing.

WOODS: Andrew says every country has some version of civic tech.

SCHROCK: Whether they sort of call it that or not. I think if you look at where civic tech sort of has taken off internationally, they tend to be in either fairly new and flexible governments like Taiwan or they tend to be in places that are, frankly, more authoritarian because they have more top-down control, right?

GONZALEZ: Andrew says younger countries tend to embrace civic tech more, younger democracies. Taiwan basically only started becoming a democracy in the late 1980s. So they're like the Gen Z democracy hooking up with hackers they meet online, showing them all their secrets. But older democracies, like the United States, we're like the boomer democracy. We're like, hold on, you're going to go on a date with a stranger that you found on the Internet?

WOODS: The U.S. government would never swipe right on a random coder who wants to help.

GONZALEZ: Never.

WOODS: The U.S. government doesn't even have the app.

SCHROCK: So, for example, it is illegal to volunteer your time at the federal level to produce technology.

GONZALEZ: What? What does that mean?

WOODS: It's illegal to volunteer your time.

SCHROCK: It's illegal.

GONZALEZ: There's actually a law. The limitation on voluntary services law that says, no, you cannot just volunteer to do IT for the U.S. government. That would be a huge security threat.

SCHROCK: So for instance, if someone volunteers their time to create a mobile app, you would have to make sure that that app was not collecting data that is invasive.

WOODS: OK. So security reasons - pretty valid. But Andrew says if you think creatively, there are ways around this. Like, you could set up a pool of vetted tech volunteers.

GONZALEZ: Andrew says this is really more that the U.S. government is just an old democracy and a big democracy. It has all of these systems in place already for how to do business, and they don't really break from it.

SCHROCK: Say you wanted to create a website for the Department of Health. There's a particular way that that's done. In government, you find the money. You create an RFP, a request for proposals. You accept those proposals. You select among the proposals in an impartial way. And only then can you proceed and create the technology.

WOODS: What civic tech or civic hackers do is essentially flip that whole equation.

SCHROCK: They start with the technology. They show what is technically possible, and then they bring that to government. And so when you have people like Audrey Tang who can recognize the value in these types of applications, that's a tremendous asset.

GONZALEZ: But Andrew does worry that this data collection could inadvertently lead to more acceptance of government surveillance. Like, yeah, they're tracking us while we're in quarantine, but they also stopped COVID. Maybe they should be allowed to track us elsewhere, too.

WOODS: And Audrey Tang, Taiwan's digital minister, doesn't pretend that this is not invasive. I mean, it is.

TANG: But it's fair. It's time limited. It's just 14 days.

WOODS: Audrey says civic hackers in Taiwan are actually working on a bunch of technologies that would have more privacy built in. Like, they're working on more private contact tracing systems. And as someone who went from occupying Parliament to the country's digital minister in just a couple of years, Audrey says everyday citizens should be empowered to hack the government to improve it.

TANG: Think about democracy itself as a technology. It is a technology. It's applied social science, applied political science. And like any technology, you can change it. You can fork it.

WOODS: Anyone can fork.

GONZALEZ: Everyone can fork.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID OHANA'S "BLONDE DISCO INSTRUMENTAL")

WOODS: If you've ever been thinking, one day I'd really love to donate to help support PLANET MONEY...

GONZALEZ: Because they're so great and we, like, love their work.

WOODS: ...Relatable, handsome...

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

WOODS: ...Now would be a pretty good time. And the way you do that is by donating to support your local NPR station. Just go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. That's donate.npr.org/planetmoney.

GONZALEZ: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, everywhere - @planetmoney.

WOODS: This episode was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and James Sneed. It was fact-checked by Irena Huang. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. I'm Darian Woods.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.