Audrey Tang, Digital Minister, Taiwan

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

My role in the cabinet is the Digital Minister. Our office, the PDIS, engages diverse stakeholders to identify and define core problems, generate meaningful challenge statements, and co-create possible solutions for real-life issues.

For example, an e-petitioner in May 2017 said that the tax filing system is “explosively difficult to use” for Mac and Linux users. We responded by saying, “Everybody who complains automatically gets an invitation to our collaboration meeting in the financial information center.”

After five such workshops, we co-created the tax exporting system of 2018 with a satisfaction rate of 96%. We have summarised this experience in the Government Digital Service Guidelines, to guide all ministries and municipalities to redesign services across the board.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

We helped organise the annual Presidential Social Innovation Hackathon with President Tsai’s office; it’s three months of intense collaboration across sectors.
Many of the 100+ proposals were initiated by public servants. Some found an NPO or a social sector partner to submit the formal admission, so they can say, “We’re happy to collaborate” — but they probably have helped to draft the proposals in the first place.

We have journalists asking for better data from the government, so they can do evidence-based analysis on flood control; we have Taiwan Water Corporation saying, “We are willing to share our SCADA data, so machine learning experts can help save us time in detecting leakage.” Instead of monetary prizes, the award is our guarantee to implement the proposal of five winning teams within the public service. The impact extends beyond Taiwan — for example, the “Water Savior” team continued their work in New Zealand.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

Bring “troll-hugging” to the physical world. Trolls are people who crave attention online because they don’t get sufficient social attention, and so have resorted to upsetting people on the Internet. Whenever people mention my name on social media in a way that tries to provoke my attention, I only respond to the parts that are authentic.

Say their post contains 100 words that are all ad hominem attacks and just five words that can be construed as constructive, then I will reply, carefully, to those five words. This shows people that it’s possible to have long-term, relational conversations.

Trolls previously only had transactional conversations — they upset people; they get attention. It’s like junk food; they wake up the next morning still feeling empty and troll some other people.

Because I carefully reply to the part that is authentic, they learn that only by responding authentically do they get a Minister’s attention. Then I invite them to the social innovation lab, which is my office hours, every Wednesday from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM.

As long as they agree to have a transcript published online, anyone can just come and have a talk and give me a hug. In this way, I attract the trolls to reveal their authentic selves and join the process of co-creation.
"I attract the trolls to reveal their authentic selves and join the process of co-creation."
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

Autonomous vehicles. Taiwan is the first jurisdiction to legally encourage autonomous experiments of hybrid land-sea-air modalities.

There are more than 13 million motorcycles in Taiwan, with an average of 380 per square kilometer, ranking number one in Asia. There are nearly 8 million cars as well, which has a significant impact on the air quality and road traffic safety in the city.

In 2019, I look forward to the completion of the construction of Tainan Shalun Smart Green Energy Science City, which has already started. The 2.2-hectare Science City provides a test field, a control center and simulation systems, from which the action of the vehicles could be observed by the public.

What are your priorities for 2019?

Social innovation for the 17 global goals. This is important because, as a government, we can really only change our direction once every year, because of budget cycles. But there’s so many emergent issues nowadays — we know that the people on the field are actually the best people to bring about innovative solutions.

Previously, the national regulations and city level regulations were often blocking people from realising the true value of their common potential.

In 2019, we are committed to expand the regulatory sandbox model — whenever an innovator sees any regulations that’s detrimental to the sustainable goals, they can ask for an experiment for one year to amend that rule or regulation, to prove that the new rules works better for everyone involved.

What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

Empathy. Having gone through two puberties does enable my mind to empathise better with people’s experiences. After dropping out of junior high, I also spent quite some time in the indigenous lands, in the first nations of Atayal. That also enables me to be post-gender and look past the mainstream binary system.

These cultural backgrounds can also teaches us how to listen to the ecosphere, who cannot vote but can, now, talk through the voices of, for example, the so-called Internet of Things; we can turn it into the Internet of Beings that enables us to empathise with, say, a river.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

In ten years, I think governments around the world will recognise that averages and correlations often miss the essential truth; we will see beyond gross domestic product (GDP) index and holistically measure societal prosperity through enlightened indicators.

These new indicators, as envisioned by the council on extended intelligence, will acknowledge the need to measure progress at different levels — individual, community, society — and the importance of better understanding the relationship between each of these levels.

Coffee, yoga, music… what powers you through your day?

Virtual reality. When I put on my VR glasses and look at the earth from the international space station, it becomes apparent that national borders already only exists in our own minds — a manifestation of the overview effect.

As Taiwan’s Digital Minister, I’m committed to empower citizens to experience this kind of overview effect, particularly around global partnerships for sustainability.