The Woman Who Conquered COVID-19

Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang sees the transparency of blockchain technology as a lynchpin of good governance.

AccessTimeIconMay 3, 2022 at 11:16 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 4:55 p.m. UTC
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Meet Audrey Tang, the woman who beat COVID-19. She’s too modest to put it that way, of course. The Digital Minister of Taiwan is quick to say that “I’m just the face,” and that the real credit belongs to the people of Taiwan, who used a mix of open-source tech, crowdsourcing and blockchain-inspired innovation to develop a contract-tracing system that people actually used, keeping coronavirus cases low.

In one remarkable stretch, Taiwan went 200 days without a COVID-19 case, and without China-style lockdowns. The secret sauce? Thanks to privacy-protecting encryption, citizens were happy to scan QR codes and “check in” at every restaurant, store, bar or cafe. They did this without revealing their personal data. It worked so well that Taiwan reduced the contract tracing cycle to an astonishing 24 minutes.

It’s an unorthodox system, and Tang is anything but orthodox. She is many things: A genius who dropped out of school at the age of eight to focus on computer programming (your move, Marc Zuckerberg); a legendary developer in the open-source community; a hacktivist who helped the revolutionary “Sunflower movement” come to power in Taiwan; the nation’s youngest-ever minister; the nation’s first transgender minister; the nation’s first “minister without portfolio” (giving her a sweeping scope) and a believer in “radical transparency” – all of Tang’s communications are available to see online.

Blockchain plays a role in this. “I learned about fully homomorphic encryption [an encryption method that preserves privacy] by reading the latest research that came from the distributed ledger community,” says Tang, who prefers to use the word “ledger” over “blockchain.” She implemented tools that let Taiwan citizens quickly come to a consensus – not just about macro issues that you vote on every few years (such as who should lead the country), but on hyper-specific, real-time, micro issues such as “What is the best QR scanner to use for a contact tracing system?”

Audrey Tang is open sourcing and crowdsourcing democracy, and it’s working. Bonus? She figured out how to beat misinformation campaigns – using a strategy called “humor over rumor” – and suspects the model could work in the United States.

Ultimately, the system that Tang helped position, which she calls the Taiwan Model, helps us crack the “seeming dilemma of preserving privacy and human rights on one side, and tackling structural wicked problems” on the other side. Usually it’s either-or. Or as Tang puts it, “Too often it's phrased as a zero-sum game … and Taiwan is proving that no, you can actually have both.”

Here's how she did it.

Note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. Thanks to Tang’s policy of radical transparency, you can read the entire, unabridged conversation at her website.

What have been your most important goals since you assumed the role of Digital Minster?

I'm a “lowercase minister,” a digital minister, meaning that I don't give orders and I don't take orders either. And the entire idea is that what matters is to work with the people, and not for the people. “For the people” means that maybe you know better than people do, right? But “with the people” means that we need to constantly build the mechanisms, the spaces.

What do you mean by the mechanisms?

Toll-free numbers, a daily press conference and many other things to make sure that people know exactly what's going on without having to invest a lot of research by themselves. To build a ladder of expertise on anything that might be controversial or require public input.

So, of course, the [response to the] pandemic is the [best known example.] I think only we in Taiwan are still doing COVID-zero with Omicron. I don't think anyone else is doing that now. … We've not instilled a single day of lockdown. It's literally based on people voluntarily participating in data collaboratives, such as contact tracing, because they know that when they scan the QR code their phone number or nothing about them will go to the venue owner, so it's privacy-preserving.

A lot of it actually came from the zk-based [zero knowledge-based proofs] research from the Web 3 field, right? I learned about fully homomorphic encryption by reading the latest research that came from the distributed ledger [blockchain] community. But then we put it into use, because people understand that if it saves their time and makes them feel safer, then they are willing to participate and also contribute to make a better QR code scanner that rejects any other QR code and so on.

What else is involved?

Basically, all the components in the current contact tracing get a lot of input from not just the social sector, but also the private sector – like our leading antivirus company Trend Micro, or LINE, which is our equivalent of WhatsApp in Taiwan. So they all got into this ecosystem of shortening contact tracing from 24 hours to 24 minutes. And people can reverse-audit in the past four weeks [to see] which contact tracing, which municipality have looked at your data. So there's reverse accountability to ensure that it's deleted after four weeks.

We’ve built similar relationships with the data collaboratives to counter infodemics as well, which is less widely reported. So my hope is to keep this “With the People” paradigm going strong, so people don’t have to give up when seeing the seeming-dilemma of preserving privacy and human rights on one side and tackling structural-wicked problems, like the [coronavirus] pandemic or info-demic, on the other side. Too often it's phrased as a zero-sum game, like there's a dial here somewhere, right? And Taiwan is proving that, no, you can actually have both if you work with the people, not just for the people.

You mentioned how you work to counter “infodemics.” What do you mean by this exactly?

So, parallel to the pandemic is the infodemic. The thing that reduced the effectiveness of NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions] in other jurisdictions. Like if the people believe that there’s a 5G antenna in a mask. [Laughs.]

Oh, so misinformation campaigns?

Or intentional disinformation campaigns. [Or] information manipulation leading up to elections, and so on. Of course, the U.S., being an advanced democracy, doesn’t have that.

[Both laugh.] We need you! We need you here in the U.S.! Okay, but seriously, clearly the United States does have, as you say, an “infodemic.” The U.S. has a big problem there. Can you elaborate on the tools you put in place in Taiwan to stop this?

So we call it humor over rumor. It's very simple. [By analogy], the idea is how some vaccines are made. You take a trending viral virus variant, take its mRNA strands, and put it into a different spike protein configuration and then release it. So it gets even more viral than the [original] virus itself.

Okay, I think I’m following …

The idea is that we have this trending scoreboard of which “viruses of the mind” are getting the highest R-value [a measure of how fast a virus spreads.] … So suppose we know this [misinformation] has an R-value of 10. Like, on average, one person spreads this information to 10 other people. So we focus on that … and then we take some mRNA strands [by analogy], and then we put out a really funny meme.

What’s an example?

Before the pandemic, there was viral disinformation that said, “The state is going to fine you $1 million if you perm your hair twice or more a week.” Do you believe it? But it's actually viral. It’s trending.

And then our premier, within two hours … wrote this extremely funny meme where we quote the disinformation and say it's not true.

Then the premier, who is in his 70s now, posted a photo of him as a young man with a lot of hair. And the young man said, "So it's not true. I used to have hair. I would not punish people who look like my youth." And a fine print that says, "What you've seen in the rumors are actually a labeling requirement for the warnings that the labels of the manufacturer of those hair products, they must be printed on that bottle. So the fine goes to the manufacturer or the bottler if they don't put in a warning label."

The “viral payload” is the premier, as he looks now, with almost no hair, and then with a hair blower, and said, "But if you perm your hair many times a week, it will not damage your bank account, it will damage your hair. Your hairstyle may become my hairstyle.” So he makes fun of himself, and it's very convincing.

That went absolutely viral. Much more viral than the disinformation. And the people who laughed about it, who vented their outrage, literally became immune when they see the original disinformation. They don't spread it anymore ... because they have already vented.

Ah, I get it. You're giving an outlet for conspiracy theories and absurdist rumors? A safe, healthy, innocent outlet. And once that thirst has been slaked, they're not as likely to fall prey to the actual rumors. So your team is intentionally creating fantastical funny rumors that are not true, and hoping they’ll go viral?

Exactly. Pneumatic engineering. Yes.

Incredible. And with the “R scores,” you’re tracking both the real rumors – the “viruses of the mind” – and the fake, humor rumors?

The vaccines. Yes.

Do you think that would work in the U.S.?

Yes, definitely. And all it takes is a kind of self-deprecating humor from the leadership.

That’s so interesting. On a related note, I understand that “radical transparency” is a foundational value of yours. Why is that so important to you, and how can it benefit society?

Because it enables timely consensus, and the ledger [blockchain] community of all communities understands this. If you don't get a high bandwidth in terms of transaction per second and a low latency for a consensus, well, there really is no reason why people should invest in the governance equations, because whatever they propose will take forever to be ratified.

And, of course, in open source you can always fork, but that's not feasible for many communities. You can't really fork the community relationships with you, right? If it's that easy, Facebook would have been forked like a trillion times by now, right? So the right to fork, while fundamental, and I respect the software freedoms which is essentially the right to fork, is just the right to exit.

But what we're building with timely, real-time, radical transparency is the right to voice. The right to matter in governance settings, in a way that doesn't squander your own cognitive resources and can actually ripple through the consent of the governed. To build “consensus of the governed,” so to speak.

What do you mean exactly?

In an epidemic setting, this is even more important. Because if mask distribution, or contact tracing, or vaccination only works in some pockets of population or some pockets of cities … then it creates internal division that drives the party apart. And we've seen many other jurisdictions where the national and the municipal governments were on completely different sides. And if they do that a couple of times, people lose all trust in the counter epidemic measures, because their mayor said a different thing from the chancellor, or from the premier, and so on.

We can definitely relate to this in the U.S. …

But if, through this real-time, open API, the cabinet minister can very easily say, “Yeah, the municipal version is correct. It's been proven by the open-street map community. There's no qualms about that.” And then 24 hours later, we integrate that into the consensus. So then it's always a backward-compatible soft fork. There is always a right to fork in democratic policies. But the fork is soft, meaning that it's backward compatible. And the mainline has a timely way to integrate, meaning that we just abandon our original errors of our ways and simply say that the software is now the new reality. Maybe we call it London or something.

Let me try and summarize. So it's the extremely efficient, real-time communication that you've instilled that allows a constant understanding of what people want?

That's right.

And the people, by having their voice clearly heard, don’t necessarily have governance. It’s not like, if 80% of the people in Taiwan approve of a certain solution it’s law. It’s not a direct democracy. But it’s a clear demonstration of what they want?

It's agenda. It's agenda-setting power.

Right. Got it. But I’m still a little fuzzy on what you mean by the “soft fork”?

Yeah. So once the agenda is known, not just to the premier or the minister but a crowdsourced agenda is known for everyone, then instead of just the government's contractors delivering solutions, actually, everyone is free to experiment in their vicinity on solutions.

Ah, I’m starting to get it …

Last May [2020] when we had our real first [COVID-19] wave … there were literally more than 20 contact tracing solutions going on in just three days. … Pretty much all the contact tracing makers are on the same [communication] channel, and we are just working very diligently so that within a couple of days we converged on the SMS-based, open standard QR code contact tracing where everyone can implement their own QR code scanner but nobody keeps personal data. And that was the consensus of the contact tracing tool makers.

So I didn't program the tool myself, but I did what we call a “reverse-procurement.” The specification is defined by the internet civic community. It's taken as a national standard, so that we then take that to ask our vendors and contractors in the private sector to build to the spec that those small-scale experiments have already validated.

It's pretty much the only working way. So crowdsource agenda setting is one, but open innovation co-creation is the other. And these two working together is like a double diamond, right? You get to diverge, converge, diverge, converge very quickly.

How do you feel knowing that you saved a lot of lives? As I understand it, you are the key figure motivating this open-source massive experiment on a national scale. No other country has done this. You’ve trounced COVID-19 thanks to this.

I think we call it the Taiwan model, so the "you" is definitely plural. You is not just me. I'm just the face, right? The spokesperson of a huge community of civic tech and government tech.

But I think it is really a model. It's not just for the pandemic and the infodemic. It could also be used to fight climate change, or all sorts of inequity and injustice that people previously thought must result in the loss of one or the other.

After they got introduced into this way of thinking, then they can actually design solutions that work for the true betterment of next generations and so on. Because it's much easier to take the plurality into account if you know, as a fact, that 8,000 people starting a movement online with a popular hashtag is actually a force of good, instead of a force to disrupt. …

So it's a really good thing that we can show those concrete solutions that, as you've said, have saved people's lives. Because then people think, "Oh, if we can actually get the COVID and especially Omnicron [variant] to net-zero, then maybe it's not hard to tackle the carbon dioxide thing, to get it to net-zero." It instills optimism into all the sectors.

I enjoyed this. Congrats on your success.

Thank you. [Raises hand in Vulcan salute.] Live long and prosper.


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Jeff  Wilser

Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.

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