WeChat started out as a messaging app but now hosts one of China’s biggest mobile payment tools, and Grab has evolved from a ride hailing service to offering food delivery and insurance. Can governments copy the way big tech has bundled multiple services into one giant app?

The Taipei City Government has built a superapp that allows citizens to carry out everyday tasks on their smartphones. The TaipeiPASS gives nearly 11 million citizens access to municipal services and played a vital role in contact tracing during the pandemic.

Commissioner of Taipei City Government’s Department of Information Technology Lu Hsin-ke, highlights the key features of TaipeiPASS, and four ways it improves the everyday lives of citizens.

1. Personalised services 

The TaipeiPASS makes interacting with government simpler by giving each citizen a digital pass. This serves to verify their identity, autofill government forms and direct relevant services and information to each citizen.

Citizens often find it difficult to navigate government websites as there can be an overload of information, says Lu. The TaipeiPASS directs citizens to services they may require without them having to look for it, he explains.

For example, when a pregnant woman visits a clinic, her medical records are saved in the healthcare system. TaipeiPASS can access this information and automatically recommend information or online services that she may require. It can also recommend benefits or grants that she may qualify for based on her demographic information.

Additionally, the app provides lifestyle recommendations based on the information citizens share. Dog owners may receive recommendations for nearby dog parks, while families with young children may be directed to information on daycare centers.

2. Open channels of communication 

Second, TaipeiPASS has made communicating with the government much easier for citizens. In the past, citizens had to call a general hotline to report a problem, then wait to be directed to the relevant department.

The app makes this process faster. Besides making reports, citizens can also submit petitions, opinions, or questions they may have about city-related issues to public officials.

“We hope that through the TaipeiPASS, people can easily have channels of communication with the public sector,” says Lu. “It allows for an active user involvement, and keeps them engaged through the exchange of interactive opinion,” he adds.

3. Integrate services

The TaipeiPASS integrates services such as transport, payment, and discounts on recreational activities to improve convenience for citizens, says Lu.

For example, senior citizens aged 65 and above are eligible for discounts on public transport, but will traditionally need a special card to enjoy the special rates, explains Lu. With the TaipeiPASS, they can simply use their mobile phones to pay travel fares, he continues.

The app also allows citizens to pay their bills online, Lu adds. With e-payment, citizens no longer need to visit a convenience store or service centre to pay their utility bills.

“We know that citizens do not always interact with the government,” he notes. To incentivise citizens to use the app, they partnered with businesses to offer discounts on products or entrance tickets to attractions.

“We give them some small benefits or perks to make them use this app,” he explains.

4. Contact tracing and vaccine booking 

While the original purpose of the TaipeiPASS was to improve public service, it has also come in useful during the pandemic, highlights Lu.

When the pandemic first hit, businesses did contact tracing manually by registering the name and contact information of their customers. However, this raised personal data security and privacy risks.

To address this, the Taipei City Government integrated a contact tracing system into the TaipeiPASS. With the app, citizens can scan a QR code posted outside a store, and their names and contact information will be automatically recorded in the cloud.

“The TaipeiPASS gives people more trust as they don’t need to worry about their data being stored by different companies,” says Lu. “It is all stored by the government.”

With the TaipeiPASS, users can also register multiple visitors at the same time if they are family members, said Secretary-General Chen Chih-ming, according to Taipei Travel. This makes signing into venues more convenient for those who bring children or elderly along on shopping trips, he added.

Because of Taipei’s successful contact tracing programme, the city was able to hold New Year countdown parties at the end of 2020 as all attendees were tracked through the app, says Lu. Besides contact tracing, citizens can also make vaccination appointments and apply for Covid-19 relief measures through the app.

Government authorities too benefitted from the TaipeiPASS. A dashboard collected information from the app and distilled it into vital data such as hospital bed availability. This provided officials with a clear overview of the pandemic situation in Taipei, helping them make better decisions during the pandemic, explains Lu.

Taiwan’s superapp has made vaccine appointments, communication and personalising services easier. It may not yet have WeChat’s reach or Grab’s range of services, but it holds promise for what the future of citizen engagement could be.