Harnessing national digital power to prevent COVID-19: the case of Taiwan

Written by Chih-Wei Chen.

Image credit: big-data_conew1 by luckey_sun/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

This article was originally published by the RGS, you can find the original article here.

Over the past 18 months, the whole world has been severely challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused enormous numbers of infections and deaths, as well as economic recessions worldwide. Many countries took a series of actions to contain the spread of coronavirus, such as large-scale lockdowns and the provision of economic stimulate. Taiwan has often been positioned as a success story in terms of pandemic management. It did this largely by harnessing the national digital power, the core of which lies in the flexible and meaningful employment of technologies (including Geographic Information Systems) in governance, and supporting this with comprehensive policy planning for the whole society.

Taiwan’s approach to the pandemic is not entirely new, however. Over the past few decades, the Taiwanese government has developed policies to promote digitalisation in the healthcare industries. One of the most renowned actions was developing the National Health Insurance (NHI) system, which aimed to provide high quality, universal, accessible, and equal healthcare for all citizens with less health burden. After decades of development and application, the NHI system has accumulated a comprehensive database which allows for further innovative applications, such as the NHI MediCloud system, “My Health Bank” service, and Artificial intelligence analysis of NHI. Today, the NHI system can be integrated into every perspective of the healthcare industry (e.g. pandemic prevention, medical research) and enables cross-department collaborations. This digitised healthcare system therefore formed the basis for Taiwan’s response to Covid-19.

One good example of this is in face mask distribution. At the early stages of the pandemic, when shortage of face masks greatly challenged many countries, the Taiwanese government promptly organised the National Face Mask Production Team to address the issue. They did so by collating Taiwan’s manufacturing capacity alongside the national digital power afforded by the NIH database, and GIS techniques, to enhance the production capacity of face masks and distribute them to people. Moreover, the Name-Based Mask Distribution System was also developed by collecting data from the manufacturing industry and employing the database of local pharmacies to display the location of pharmacies and stock of face masks, allowing people to locate and purchase, or pre-purchase, face masks efficiently.

The government then released data publicly, which allowed the creative industries to further develop the GIS by integrating Google information platform and databases provided by the government. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health and Welfare also provided the face mask supply and demand information platform, which brought together efforts from various shareholders, and allowed society to obtain the most helpful information. Under such circumstance, people could easily look up where and when they could purchase face masks, preventing panic.

Heat map of face mask information (the map shows the location of the pharmacy with its working hours, and the number of available face masks for adults and children, respectively).

Data governance in addressing new challenges

Scientists predict that Covid-19 is very likely or likely to become an endemic viral disease, with a very high possibility of viral mutation, and many new, and more contagious, variants periodically appearing and spreading worldwide. In recent weeks, one variant has broken into Taiwan, causing the first significant outbreak in communities. To contain the infections, Taiwan moved into the Level 3 restrictions and implemented a series of measures to limit gatherings and to test, trace and isolate those who tested positive and their close contacts.

To do this, Taiwan has once again used its integrated digital power. The Taiwan government considered the public concerns on issues such as infection prevention, digital divide, and data privacy, as well as developed the QR code registration system to track the footprint of people in the public health system.

The QR code registration system allows businesses, public agencies, public transportations, and individuals to register their locations simply by scanning the QR code and sending the text to the telecommunication companies.

While using the system, main public concerns are responded: (1) people don’t need to contact each other, which reduces the risk of infection; (2) no additional APP should be downloaded, therefore the system could be user-friendly for people with either conventional phones or smart phones, which narrows the digital divide; (3) and most importantly, people don’t need to provide their personal information, which protects the privacy. After data collection, the location information is then stored by telecommunication companies for 28 days (two incubation periods) and could only be used by the national health command centre (NHCC) for pandemic prevention. Hence, in the QR code registration system, people provide location information to the government, who can then integrate these data into a GIS system to track the people who tested positive and their potential contact people, and thereby disinfect the areas as soon as possible. Under such circumstance, people are aware of how the system is functioned and what happens to their data, and therefore are confident to the government and willing to provide their location information through the system.

Employment of Data Science and GIS in developing Face Mask Distribution System and QR Code Registration System. (Black line: the Face Mask Distribution System; red line: the QR code registration system; dotted line: the data flow).

The Face Mask Distribution System and QR code registration system both demonstrate how Taiwan harnessed its strong national digital power through effective data governance in pandemic prevention and addressing the new challenges. It is important that policymakers consider people with different background, necessities, resources, and conditions while making policies. This will lead to the development of comprehensive and effective policies, as well as further flexible and meaningful employment of technologies in governance systems. Meanwhile, digital technologies also allow the shareholders to work together and helps to promote public-private partnerships and diversified public engagement. Such actions echo the spirit of the 74th World Health Assembly Item 14 – harnessing digital technologies to implement sustainable development goals.

Beyond the digitalisation in the healthcare industry, these technologies can also be integrated into different industries and government agencies comprehensively, supporting digital transformation across various sectors. The development and strengthening of the national digital power are the keys to address future challenges and implement sustainable development towards shaping a smart and sustainable future.

Chih-Wei Chen FRGS is the Life Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in the UK. Currently, he serves as a member of National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) of Taiwan Govt.; and he also works as the Visiting Professor of University College London (UCL) in the UK, and the Visiting Scholar of National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Japan.

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