Summer of Open Data
Conversation with Taiwan's Audrey Tang
Posted on 5th of August 2020 by Andrew Zahuranec
The Summer of Open Data is a three-month project spearheaded by the Open Data Policy Lab (an initiative of The GovLab with support from Microsoft) in partnership with the Digital Trade & Data Governance Hub, Open Data Institute, the Open Data Charter, and BrightHive. Each week, we speak with data experts in local and regional governments, national statistical agencies, international bodies, and private companies to advance our understanding of how to establish a vision of open data focused on collaboration, responsibility, and purpose.
The GovLab’s Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer Stefaan Verhulst interviewed Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister in charge of social innovation and open government; and a member of The GovLab’s Global Advisory Board.
In an 45-minute conversation, Stefaan and Audrey spoke on a variety of issues, including Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s application of data collaboration, the real and potential value of emerging technologies, the need to engage the public on data use, and ways to develop digital skills.
The full conversation, as well as a brief overview of highlights, is below:
Coronavirus has demonstrated the importance of proactive disease response. In the United States, the pandemic has taken a serious toll, with more than 4.5 million cases and 150,000 deaths. Taiwan, by contrast, had 467 cases and just seven deaths for its 24 million citizens.
Noting recent coverage in Wired on how Taiwan “hacked” the pandemic, Stefaan opened the discussion by asking Audrey about the role open data played in the country’s pandemic strategy. Audrey discussed these solutions, noting how access to real-time data from pharmacies, stores, and elsewhere had enabled the creation of more than 140 visualizations and chatbots.
“What we have done is to make use of the open data ecosystem to make sure people can build their own applications to give participatory accountability.”
Audrey then spoke about the open source moment and its principles, noting that collaboration offered benefits for both economics and human rights. By understanding both motivations, organizations could better motivate those within the private sector.
“Collaboration reduces costs for everybody and it can generate unexpected applications […] in the open data and data collaborative landscape. If you open up the data, from a private-sector point of view, you attract people who improve the quality of the data.”
These principles could be seen in recent data collaborative work conducted by Taiwan. Under its current president, Taiwan has hosted a yearly hackathon that calls on people in Taiwan and internationally to experiment with potentially impactful uses of data to inform policy.
“It’s an interesting configuration of an annual, three-month prototyping session with three sectors that always results in public sector improvements. Every year, the idea is that our president Dr. Tsai Ing-wen gives five trophies to five teams […] with the promise that whatever they did in the last three months will become our national policy, our national priority, in the next twelve months.”
The hackathon had real policy consequences, Audrey noted. She spoke about a project from the previous year, prompted by a recent environmental law. Using simple sensors to collect data and a distributed ledger ledger to ensure people were not “rewriting history,” the project improved the ease with which people could measure the quality of their water.
The project received support from the public sector, which could use the data to identify and respond to pollution. It also received support from companies who wanted to prove that they were not polluters and communities, who saw that the collected data could be used for other purposes aimed at the public good.
Engaging the Public
On this point, Audrey spoke about how Taiwan engaged with members of the public and its approach to issues of appropriate data reuse. Noting the need for strong personal protections, Audrey noted the need to distinguish between evidentiary data — data collected about masks and other objects — and personal data — data about people. Organizations that collect too much information risked undermining public trust in ways that could harm their other operations.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, for locally confirmed cases, surely their travel history belongs to the evidence pot because everyone would benefit from learning where they have been.’ But then our central epidemic command centre has to push back and say, ‘No, even if we just publish a set of histories, that is to say places and dates, it’s easy to then reidentify.”
“Then they will feel pressure. They will feel that maybe society doesn’t like them. If one or two cases like that happen, the next one who develops symptoms will not report to a clinic and that will actually put all of us in danger.”
On vTaiwan, the online crowdsourcing platform used by the government to inform the policymaking process on contentious issues, proposals on data reuse frequently came up. This public input, Audrey argued, was useful in developing norms on emerging topics such as contact tracing.
The GovLab recently launched its own initiative soliciting diverse, actionable public input on data reuse for crisis response in the United States: The Data Assembly.
Skills and Processes
The conversation concluded with a discussion of the skills needed to be more responsible and systematic with data. In it, Audrey spoke about the four pillars of President Tsai Ing-wen’s “DIGI⁺” digitalization plan, which corresponded to the skills the government wanted to foster in the public sector: Digitization skills; Innovation skills; Governance skills; and Inclusion skills.
“These are the four pillars around anything digital, not just data,” Audrey argued. “I think it’s important to understand that there’s different lenses going on here. Instead of buying into a particular lens, for instance innovation or inclusion, it really pays to make sure we can take [into account] all the sides.”
Stefaan closed the panel by asking Audrey what she considered her greatest priority. On this point, Audrey emphasized the need to encourage more than just data literacy among the public. Institutions needed to foster data competence so anyone can participate fully in data efforts.
“We do not want our children to feel that they are merely media literate, that they are only consumers of media, only consumers of data, consumers of digital creative products. I want them to think that they are producers.” She said. “We want to think about the contributions they are making and the trade-offs they are making. Once they see themselves as data producers, they are in a position to negotiate.”
The Summer of Open Data will continue these conversations in the weeks and months to come.
Our next panel will bring together:
- Head of the OECD Unit on Digital Government, Open Data, and the Data-Driven Public Sector Barbara Ubaldi;
- MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth Vice President of Data & Insights Arturo Franco; and
- Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry.
Video of this panel will be released next Wednesday, August 12, 2020.
Until then, we welcome your input into the Third Wave of Open Data. Feel free to visit us at opendatapolicylab.org or participate in the conversation by tweeting with the hashtags #SummerOfOpenData and #3rdWaveOpenData.