‘Turning conflicts into co-creation’: Taiwan government harnesses digital policy for democracy

By Si Ying Thian

Audrey Tang, Taiwan's digital minister in charge of the Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA), says digital platforms can help promote democratic participation and collaboration, enabling the territory to tackle global threats such as AI risks, climate change and information manipulation.

According to Taiwan's digital minister Audrey Tang, MODA is “one of the very few ministries” that combines democratic participation, digital policy administration and cyber security in one agency. Image: CommonWealth Magazine English.

Assistive intelligence and language models can help facilitate nuanced conversations because the human brain simply cannot process 1,000 different positions, said Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister in charge of the Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA).  


Tang was speaking at a webinar about policymaking in the digital age, hosted by LSE IDEAS, the think tank of the London School of Economics, on 1 December 2023.  


She was describing Talk to the City, a large language model that transforms transcripts from a variety of datasets into clusters of similar opinions, as an example of a technology that has helped increase collaboration and diversity without losing the ability to scale.


GovInsider highlights some of the key takeaways from the session.  

MODA founding emerged from pressing needs 


Founded in August 2022, MODA is Taiwan’s digital development agency, initially convened as a rapid response team brought together by multiple ministries due to the pandemic. 


In tackling privacy and public health concerns during COVID-19, Taiwan had developed its contact-tracing system by tapping on privacy-protecting encryption found in open-source and blockchain-inspired innovations. 


The privacy-protecting encryption has assured and encouraged citizens to “check in” at the places they visit without revealing their personal data. As a result of its contact-tracing system, Taiwan went 200 days without a COVID-19 case or the need for extensive city lockdowns, according to CoinDesk


According to Tang, MODA is also “one of the very few ministries” that combines democratic participation, digital policy administration and cyber security in one agency.  

MODA is "one of the few ministries" combining democratic participation, digital policy administration and cyber security in one agency. Image: MODA.

“We don’t make trade-offs for emerging technologies. Through democratic participation, we aim to find pluralism or collaborative diversity – ways to interoperate for both safety and progress – to promote co-creation from tensions and conflicts,” said Tang.  


Aside from Talk to the City, MODA has partnered with an international NGO this year to launch the Alignment Assemblies project to build public consensus around how AI should serve the people. The project considers both online and offline participation by Taiwanese citizens.  


Open source as the foundation of democratic participation 


“The idea is to establish value-based, long-term collaborations based on the idea of public code. This is evident in many of our government websites, which very much look like the UK’s,” said Tang. 


Public code is defined by Foundation of Public Code as an open-source software developed by public organisations, together with policy and guidance needed for collaboration and reuse. 


She also highlighted the importance for Taiwan to partake in cross-border collaborations and conversations shaping AI governance. 


The country recently participated in the UN’s Internet Governance Forum, a multistakeholder governance group for policy dialogue on issues of internet governance, which happened in Kyoto, Japan, in October. 


Explaining its focus on public codes, Tang said: “We embrace public codes and digital public infrastructures (DPI), as they are the very basic layers that ultimately strengthen individual resilience across the democratic world.” 


“We want to overhaul our current procurement system to manage the source code collectively, and this can further ignite innovation by merging the contributions of technologists and activists as well,” she added.  

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen presenting a certificate to one of five winning teams at the awards ceremony for the 2023 Presidential Hackathon. Image: Presidential Office.

GovInsider also earlier published a commentary around how DPI looks like in practice in Bangladesh


Another example of incentivising bottom-up innovation is through the Presidential Hackathon, an annual initiative by the Taiwanese government emphasising open-source data to address the needs of the country. 


“This is our commitment to take co-creations on a smaller scale to the national level. [This initiative] is one of the most important political incentives for the civic tech and open culture communities to work with the government and for the people.” 


The government’s commitment to open source is also evident in its rollout of the Taiwan Employment Gold Card, which integrates a flexible work permit, a residence visa for up to three years, and eligibility for national health insurance and income tax reduction.  


According to Tang, the Taiwan government invites anyone with experience of eight years or more in contributing to open source or a Web3 publicly available ledger to enrol in the residency program. 

Local data resilience: Not putting all eggs into one basket 


Satellite communications are increasingly being targeted in geopolitics, according to a commentary published on Reuters. Both Ukraine and Taiwan have been highlighted as targets. 


In the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, Ukraine’s digital minister has reported concerns about the country’s overreliance on Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which puts its communication infrastructure at risk and at the mercy of a single provider.  

Satellite communications are increasingly being targeted in geopolitics, and relying on  a single provider puts communication infrastructure at risk and at the mercy of the service provider. Image: Starlink on Wikipedia.
  “In Taiwan, we believe in the plurality of providers for the public cloud,” said Tang. 

The country is currently working with several big cloud providers like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon; as well as different satellite providers, so as to “not put all the eggs into one basket.” 


She also teased the idea of Taiwan launching a data embassy, something pioneered by Estonia, which currently has a data embassy located in Luxembourg. “It keeps the data backed up even if something happens in Estonia,” she explained.  


She likened the idea of keeping data in data embassies to public clouds. However, there remains concerns around cloud provider access to personal data.  


As governments increasingly move towards a multi-cloud environment, they need to be aware of the IT security challenges that follow and learn how to protect data in a multi-cloud space


To this end, Tang highlighted the need for the Taiwan government to invest in emerging technologies such as encryption to tackle privacy concerns, as well as 5G to provide an additional means for the country to communicate with its global counterparts in case existing networks are hijacked. 


The Taiwan government recently approved NT$1.34 billion (US$42 million) for cloud data encryption from 18 key infrastructure management systems, Focus Taiwan reported.