The spread of the novel coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 pandemic have provided a powerful test of social and governance systems. Neither of the world’s two leading powers, China and the United States, has been particularly distinguished in responding. In China, an initial bout of political denial allowed the virus to spread for weeks, first domestically and then globally, before a set of forceful measures proved reasonably effective. (The Chinese government also should have been better prepared, given that viruses have jumped from animal hosts to humans within its territory on multiple occasions in the past.) The United States underwent its own bout of political denial before adopting social-distancing policies; even now, its lack of investment in public health leaves it ill-equipped for this sort of emergency.
The response of the bureaucratic and often technophobic European Union may prove even worse: Italy, although far from the epicenter of the outbreak, has four times the per capita rate of cases as China does, and even famously orderly Germany is already at half China’s rate. Nations in other parts of the world, such as information-manipulating Iran, provide worse examples yet.
Taiwan’s success has rested on a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation. A small but technologically cutting-edge democracy, living in the shadow of the superpower across the strait, Taiwan has in recent years developed one of the world’s most vibrant political cultures by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than detriment. This culture of civic technology has proved to be the country’s strongest immune response to the new coronavirus.
TECH FOR DEMOCRACY
The value of Taiwan’s tech-enabled civic culture has become abundantly clear in the current crisis. Bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, “hacktivism” (activism through the building of quick-and-dirty but effective proofs of concept for online public services), and participatory collective action have been central to the country’s success in coordinating a consensual and transparent set of responses to the coronavirus. A recent report from the Stanford University School of Medicine documents 124 distinct interventions that Taiwan implemented with remarkable speed. Many of these interventions bubbled into the public sector through community initiatives, hackathons, and digital deliberation on the vTaiwan digital democracy platform, on which almost half the country’s population participates. (The platform enables large-scale hacktivism, civic deliberation, and scaling up of initiatives in an orderly and largely consensual manner.) A decentralized community of participants used tools such as Slack and HackMD to refine successful projects. (Much of our analysis is based on open interviews through these tools with leaders in the g0v community of civic hackers.)