INTERVIEW: Taiwan's 'Digital' Minister, Audrey Tang (Part 2)

INTERVIEW: Taiwan's 'Digital' Minister, Audrey Tang (Part 2)
Photo Credit: 青春發言人
What you need to know

This is the second of a three-part interview with Taiwan’s ‘genius hacker.'

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Audrey Tang (唐鳳) last month started in her new role as Taiwan’s first “digital minister.” Officially, she is a minister without portfolio in Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Cabinet with responsibilities for the digital economy and open government.

Tang, 35, “retired” from the business world in 2014 after a successful tech career, which included time working with companies in Silicon Valley. Over the past two years, she has been dedicated to public service and her new position will see the continuation of her work using her advanced programming skills and passion for open democracy. She is also Taiwan’s first transgender politician and the youngest member of the Tsai administration.

In this interview series with The News Lens International, Tang describes the crucial behind-the-scenes role she played in the Sunflower Movement, how Taiwan’s digital community has continued to create new avenues for citizen participation in the years since, and her beliefs about how assistive technology will benefit society in future. She also explains her views on different types of hackers, and why, actually, she is still an anarchist.

▶ See also: “Audrey Tang, Part One”

The News Lens International (TNL): We know the history since the Sunflower Movement; the ruling party of the time left power, we now have a new government and you are part of the new Cabinet. Can you talk a little bit about some of the projects that you have been involved since 2014, the citizen democracy participation projects, perhaps with reference to vTaiwan and g0v? And how the movement, which you were part of, has progressed through the past two years until you took the new role in October?

Audrey Tang: I have written papers and given talks about this, but I can put it into a five-minute version. I think it began right after the [Legislative Yuan] occupation. One of the main demands was that we were taking these “deliberative democracy” methods and ICT (information communication technology) architecture – which was able to make the event far more visible than any prior deliberations in Taiwan’s history – and spread the “seeds” over Taiwan.

It was really in the civil society where we started learning from each other. I was not a facilitator back then, but I started very intensive facilitation training with the people who facilitated the “on-the-street” discussions [in the Sunflower Movement]. It was not just me; other people who were on the ICT side then participated in nuclear protests and many other different topics and started to learn how facilitation works. Conversely, people who worked on civic media – the e-forum people – eventually would become the “backbone” of a new generation of media, like [Chinese-language] The Reporter, Initium in Hong Kong and other Internet-only media. They brought the new ICT applications, like Hackpad and Slack and all those tools, into those media organizations. The media people, the ICT people, the facilitation people, those CSOs (civil society organizations), they all learned from each other after the occupy movement in a much more intensive, collaborative way.

By the end of that year, 2014, there was a local election. Taipei City candidate [and now Mayor], Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) was an Occupy supporter. He would use many of the same techniques in his campaign. And his inclusive, "open government" procedures were coordinated by people who participated in the Sunflower Movement. The same happened, to a lesser degree, with all the city mayors, regardless of party. They saw that this was really the way forward to communicate with people.

The Premier of the time, Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國), explicitly outlined crowd-sourcing as one of the three key points in his new agenda. There was then a systematic training of the public service system by the Sunflower community. Many speeches were given and we designed a curriculum and brought about 1,000 civil servants up to speed with the architecture we had designed.

By the end of the first year, training started with the highest-level public servant officials, and that went well into 2015. Premier Mao Chi-kuo allocated plenty of training resources to the public service to be able to respond to these ICT-mediated civil society deliberations. It really took a lot of time; the higher the level of the public servant, the more they are used to paper-based work – which has a fundamentally different logic to the Internet-based logic that we were talking about. Both the paper culture and the digital culture had to adapt to connect to each other. That took almost all of 2015. I was one of the main people designing this coordination, but, again, I was joined by 15 to 20 colleagues from civil society.

At the time, I worked exclusively with the professional public service, not with elected public officials or Cabinet members. I recognized no matter how open-minded people in the Cabinet were, if people in the public service really did not know how this digital logic works, it would be impossible to realize the bi-direction of communication. But, this is a cultural change, and it takes time.

The platform, vTaiwan, was one of many systems designed at the time. Mostly to process laws related to cyberspace, trade and regulations about international issues. There was also a joint platform, where people could sign [an online petition]. If there were maybe 5,000 signatures, then one of the ministries would have to take charge and respond to it within 60 days. There were many other systems that appeared around that time with various successes and binding effects. It was considered to be on the national agenda, so people were very willing to experiment.

My work in this Cabinet really does not differ from my work in the previous Cabinet. The only change of position, I think, is that this Cabinet wants to make “open government” a stable part of the agenda of all the ministers without portfolio. Before, it was the Premier’s idea that we should do crowd-sourcing, but it was not part of the regular work that ministers without portfolio did. Because of my assignment, now “open government” is part of the administrative agenda. Regardless of who is the digital minister in the future, she or he will still be in charge of “open government.” That is the main difference; this Cabinet wants to make it a regular, not an experimental, part of the administrative agenda.

TNL: Can you give an example, perhaps using the “closely-held company” regulation, of how this new system and the platforms within it interact with the government to take something from the public sphere and make it into law?

Tang: I would encourage people to refer to my recorded talk. It really is more complicated than what can be explained in five minutes. The “closely-held company law” was part of a redesign of the company law itself. It was just chosen because people generally saw it as a less controversial part of it. There are many other parts of company law that people in civil society and academia have long-wanted to discuss with the private sector, and maybe redesign.

The “closely-held” part is a pilot [test] of the process that could be used to engage the stakeholders, and be coordinated by the community. By “the community” we mean civil society, private sectors and the government working together to identify the controversial points, and then look at each other face-to-face in a way that does not waste the others’ time.

We used the Sunflower technology to record everything that happens during the negotiations. The meetings carry on from the previous meetings – there will not be a “groundhog day” with discussions going nowhere. The point here is not about the efficiency – we passed this law in four months but more controversial parts of the law may take longer [to reform] in the future – the point is that in each of those weekly meetings we built on the previous meeting, we didn’t start from scratch. That is the main point I want to get across.

TNL: As someone who uses these platforms often, do you find, in some of these policy areas, the nature of the conversation or the style of the discussion changes when it is done online or in cyberspace?

Tang: It is not done “in cyberspace.” We still meet face-to-face and we have face-to-face meetings. I would describe it as a “cyber-physical” system. It is a system that has cyberspace parts and it has physical parts. I think the main difference is that people are held accountable for the words that they speak in such a meeting. Exactly like during the occupy movement; people who participated in the live-stream meetings – which were transcribed – would not want to “perform” or say something just to incite emotion, mostly because it was recorded and it was literally part of history. If some private sector or civil society person came to such a meeting, watched by thousands of online viewers and fact-checked in real-time, they would not want to say something that is out-of-tune with reality, nor would they want to promise something they could not deliver. I think the main part is accountability.

Of course, in the U.S. presidential debates, we see that even in such an environment, there are people who will still say things that have a very interesting relation to reality. I think it is because of the design of the space and it is structured as a debate.

In our space, it is designed as a deliberation. We want people to come out of the room armed with a more eclectic, comprised, nuanced, innovative position than when they came in. We are not here to debate with each other, to show how good our views are compared to other people, but rather reach a middle ground and then respond to each other’s questions and issues. And then, to leave with a result that nobody is perfectly happy with, but people are generally okay with. I think if the presidential debates were structured in this way, maybe, we would have better quality debates.

TNL: I would like to just ask a little bit about how democratic these platforms really are at this stage. Given that the people using this technology and this platform, I would argue, still come from a relatively narrow subsection of society, I wonder whether there is some inherent bias in both their views and also in the types of topics that they are interested in? What do you think about that position?

Tang: We need to compare it with the status quo and the situation before it existed, which was even less democratic. Before, we would have public hearings that were only attended by people like lobbyists, people that could only travel to Taipei, and people who are mostly represented by large-scale associations – civil society or private sectors. The constituents of those associations did not have the full transcript of what their representatives said in such situations. We would get a summary, but not [see] the process of how a rule was made.

If you compare it to the pre-existing system, I would argue it is definitely more democratic. If you were not interested in this topic and you did not participate [in the decision-making process], but in the future you wanted to look at the process, or the audit trail, of how this rule came to be, you can always go back and get the full history.

As a multi-stakeholder governance platform, we are very careful in saying, “We are here to record the process of how the stakeholders talk to each other.” We are not saying, “People who are unrelated, people who did not have the means to participate were excluded.” But we realize they may not want to dedicate so much time in the initial stages to the agenda setting.

It is not fully democratic; this is not a referendum system. This is a system that makes transparent the negotiation between stakeholders and includes some minor stakeholders who were not [previously] represented. But if you are not a stakeholder, chances are you will not be involved in this process.

TNL: Should it be the goal of that technology, though, to actually connect with the wider population, to the people who are not represented at this stage?

Tang: Yes, which is why I am doing virtual reality (VR) research. This is really the enabler. It is not about cyberspace, it is not about Internet tools. It is about the use of text as the primary medium of communication. People who are good text – journalists, lawyers, coders – we are able to look at a long article and are able to “build” castles and palaces in our heads. This is what enables us to have high-quality deliberations with each other.

When we are saying “democratic,” I want to include people who are brilliant in different modalities. Maybe they are good at tangible design, maybe they are good at audio, and other non-textual modalities. It was the goal of my research, before I joined the Cabinet, to do what we call “scalable listening” – help people to be able to listen to each other by translating between one person’s preferred speech or writing or whatever modality, to the other person’s preferred input, be it tangible, audio or something else.

It is a bit like how Skype is now able to listen in English and translate in Mandarin, but to have this not just between languages, but between modes of languages. This is crucial to enable the majority of people, who are not so comfortable with writing, into the rule-making and deliberation process. Again, it is not about designing a system, it is about responding to a situation. Virtual reality captures all the non-verbal parts of a negotiation.

TNL: Please give an example. You mentioned the protests around pensions in Taiwan. How does this new model, this new way of doing things, help somebody who is an elderly person, not living in Taipei, who doesn’t feel very well represented by their local legislator already? How will this impact their lives?

Tang: It is always easier to start with something at city level. We can talk about something like national land-use planning, which mandates that each county or city has a civil participation mechanism to determine how to allocate land. This includes zoning, renovation, large-scale construction like the third extension of Taoyuan airport runway and very large-scale buildings like the Taipei Dome, and it includes the preservation of culture and road planning. It all relates to how we want to make use of the environment that we share.

When we say the environment, it is not one thing. It is the human habitat – the city we live in, the architecture. And it is also all living beings – the animals, the plants, the eco-system inside the city. This architecture, it also changes the flow of traffic, the communication.

Having a “smart city” is fundamentally changing the “interface” of how city inhabitants interact with the services provided inside the city. All these environmental things are difficult to convey in text. You can read hundreds of pages about each aspect. In fact, people do that with environmental impact assessments, city traffic assessments. For large-scale construction people usually use BIM (building information modeling) systems to integrate all those information sources, so that a professional [engineer] and her team can organize the different flows of information and try different ideas of how best to build an airport, a road, a dome.

The problem is that the BIM system is designed for professional [engineers] as the primary user. If you are a journalist, it is very difficult to read this raw data and make sense of it. Then another professional, armed with her own BIM system, may say, “This construction sucks, because it will damage this land for years to come, and it must be done in a different way.” Then the civil society or private sector people may rely on that person and say, “We want a different vision.” But people who rely on this second person, they do not actually know the full details of the new model. Maybe they trust that person more. But whether one model is better, very few people really know.

With VR, the elderly person you mentioned can use their smartphone and add an NT$300 (US$10) Google Cardboard viewer. Wearing it for just one minute, she can see, at a glance, an overview of what "Plan A" and "Plan B" would look like in her neighborhood; how it affects the sunlight, the traffic patterns, and when she goes out the door, how the city would feel. People will be more informed of their different futures. If she is interested in getting more information, perhaps about how the street cat she feeds each day will be impacted by construction, then she can request this information. With the translational mechanism in place, we are able to simulate how the stray cats will fare. Cats are stakeholders too. The biological eco-system is a stakeholder; it just does not have voting power.

The technology shows possible futures that include “silent” stakeholders. This is something I am very passionate about; it is what I call “assistive technology.” It is lifting people who are excluded – and by "people" I also mean things like rivers – in a way that other people, who are stakeholders and the general populace can have a dialogue on.

Editor: Olivia Yang