No Lockdown, No Problem

How Democratic Taiwan Unleashes Social Innovation to Fight Covid-19

“The Pandemic served as an amplifier of two different governing models,” says Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, whose portfolio includes the Government’s Social Innovation, Open Government, and Youth Engagement, initiatives.

Tang was referring to the stark contrasts in the methods deployed by different governments in dealing with Covid-19. Authoritarians tout their regimes’ purported superiority in controlling the virus’ spread, while some heads of democracies blame their poor results on their people’s excessive love of freedom.

In a video interview released by the Human Rights Foundation, Tang persuasively argues that the choices between public health, an open society, and economic performance, are false choices. More importantly, she shares Taiwan’s experiences, showing the way democracies can control the spread of the disease, not only without betraying their freedoms and values, but also by harnessing an open society’s natural competitive advantage: Social Innovation.

Taiwan enlisted both businesses and civil society into a wave of Digital Social Innovation that allowed it to successfully navigate the perils of the coronavirus, by adhering to the principles that underpin its Open Digital Democracy: Fast, fun, and fair.


Late in December 2019, reports of a new, previously unobserved strain of a coronavirus discovered in Wuhan started to trickle into Taiwan’s digital media. These were, not only channeled to official government entities, but also to journalists and independent fact-checkers via Taiwan’s open data and open API infrastructure. Not having to contend with a government bottleneck, this information was very quickly analyzed and confirmed to be trustworthy already by December 31st, 2019, permitting the Government to start monitoring all passengers onboard flights coming to Taiwan from Wuhan as early as January 1st of 2020. It was only the first of many data-based precautionary actions that would follow.


Taking a page out from the virus’ own playbook, Taiwan’s authorities discovered that funny content has a higher R-zero, or Basic Reproduction Number than serious or even upsetting content. This is epidemiology-speak for a meme going viral. Pun intended.

This allowed the authorities in Taiwan to ensure that accurate information could spread faster than inaccuracies. This Humor over Rumor approach is a reason why nearly everyone in Taiwan wears a mask nowadays when in public and crowded spaces.


Taiwanese people cherish their hard fought and won civil liberties. They did not introduce a lock-down, and no state of emergency was declared. When implementing their contact tracing solutions, they eschewed the collection of new data, or the introduction of more intrusive data-gathering powers for the state, but rather worked with what was already in place. Oftentimes opting for less invasive data sources, such as cellular tower information, instead of the more accurate, and therefore more intrusive, but for this purpose, only marginally more valuable sources of location data.

Using the existing information and legal frameworks constraints allowed civil society: NGOs, privacy advocates, and journalists, to quickly understand and evaluate the privacy of the digital solutions, so that they could ”hold the Government accountable,” in Minister Tang’s own words.

How can Innovative Open Societies look like?

Audrey Tang shows us how Open Societies can be Innovative Societies. She explains how when average citizens discovered how rice cookers (an appliance available in every Taiwanese kitchen) could be used to sterilize face masks, including the more advanced N95 models, the Health Ministry quickly tested and validated the findings, then disseminated the findings among the population. This increased the island’s supply of face masks manifold, ultimately allowing Taiwan to donate the surplus to many countries in need, as part of their Taiwan Can Help campaign.

Open Societies are also Transparent Societies. During the early days of mask rationing, people were assigned a limited number of masks per week. These were distributed via the national system for prescription drugs. Moreover, the number of masks in stock at every individual pharmacy in the country was made accessible to all citizens by mobile app. This transparency fostered trust in the system, and Taiwan avoided the mask shortages and hoarding experienced in other countries.

Finally, an Open Society can be a Caring Society. Tang tells a story, also from the early days of mask rationing, of a boy who was allocated pink masks, and refused to wear them in school for fear of bullying. This story was picked-up from social media by Tang’s team, and in response, prominent health authorities donned pink masks in their next pandemic briefing as a sign of solidarity.

It’s not often nowadays that we hear the story of a government working with businesses and civil society to co-create a community that thrives through innovation, promotes trust through transparency, and uses social media to care for its children. The very same tools that are used by others to sow polarization and fake news.

This is a story of the tools of our trade. Yes, it warms our hearts. It should also raise the bar.

Article originally published in Medium.

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