Hackers Facing the Ocean: g0v and East Asian Civic Tech Community

Written by Sam Robbins 

Image credit: g0v2020_D0_面海松25 by 魯蛋/g0v.tw/flickr, license: CC BY 2.0

On December 3rd 2020, many frequent participants in Taiwan’s largest civic tech community, g0v (pron. “gov-zero”), gathered in a café in Tainan to participate in the third “Facing the Ocean: Meet and Hack,” along with the international hackathon jointly hosted by g0v, the civic hacking organisation Nullfull in South Korea, and Code for Japan in Japan. Despite being physically separated, participants from Japan and Korea were all participating via video call. Their faces were displayed on a projector, and the closeness and familiarity felt across these different communities was apparent. Certain members from these various groups have now begun working together, such as engaging in joint projects or organising events like this, in multiple forms for the last couple of years, and a particular community spirit seems to have emerged. The way that offline and online interaction was managed indicates the fostering of community spirit. Rather than inviting international participants to attend pre-scheduled sessions, the event was designed to place them within the physical space of other participants as much as possible. The familiarity and camaraderie displayed by members of these different communities was also notable. Indeed, the event felt even more like a reunion than a regular g0v hackathon. In the small physical space of the Café and in the various bedrooms and offices displayed on the screen, it was clear that an international community of civic tech practitioners in East Asia had begun to emerge for at least some participants in each country.

When discussing my research about g0v’s international exchange, I have often been asked whether I think activists from the g0v community are specifically interested in international exchange as a way to implicitly, or even explicitly, increase Taiwan’s international visibility. This is perhaps true to a certain extent. Moreover, some did express the hope of helping Taiwan’s branding. Still, civic tech activism has been international before g0v emerged and before the term civic tech was in common parlance. Civic tech, or the usage of technology systems to improve government responsiveness and civic engagement, can be traced to the 1990s with the emergence of “digital democracy.” This was also the period when open-source activists became increasingly connected online. Some of those who would become earlier prominent figures in the g0v community, such as digital minister Audrey Tang, got their start in open-source activism at this time. From that time onwards, activists have engaged digitally and in-person to share source code for open-source technology, to create and edit a copy of existing projects (known as ‘forking’), to share ideas and gain inspiration, or to learn about how different communities organise their activism. The last decade has seen an increasing routinisation of such exchanges, with an increasingly diverse set of activists participating in an increasingly diverse set of conferences and interactions. g0v has been part of these networks since the community was first formed in 2012. 

International exchange among data activists happens in several formats for a number of purposes. Rather than seeing international exchange as inexorably motivated by a desire to promote Taiwan’s visibility, it is perhaps more useful to think of the international exchange as linked to a process of locating Taiwan, and the g0v community, in an imagined geography of global tech activism. Framed in this way, we can see g0v as asking itself not how to make Taiwan more visible but rather, what kinds of exchanges are most meaningful for Taiwan and Taiwanese activists. As more and more opportunities to engage have emerged, more participants in the g0v community have begun asking themselves exactly what type of exchange is the most meaningful. In response to a shifting landscape of tech activism internationally and to a different activist ecosystem internally, g0v’s answer to this question has shifted over time. The focus recently has been on cultivating a deeper and long-lasting exchange with partners deemed to share a similar culture and political situation to Taiwan. In practice, this has meant more prolonged exchanges between Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan instead of an attempt to foster all connections to civic tech communities globally. This process was even described by Bess—a g0v participant and member of the g0v.jothon team—as a process of the “decolonisation” of civic tech. This has begun to lead to the emergence of an East Asian civic tech community. 

The notion of “community” (社群) runs deeps in the g0v collective culture. The term denotes not only an organisational strategy wherein “community” refers to g0v’s leaderless, open-to-all structure, it also reflects something deeper about the political potential of data and digital tools as imagined by g0v. For example, Mei-chun Lee has spoken of g0v as hacking the government through open-source projects and hacking governance by using collaborative tools to engender new forms of horizontal solidarity building. However, this “community” has traditionally been implicitly limited to Taiwan and the Taiwanese diaspora, with international exchange being understood as an exchange between communities, not within a community. Facing the Ocean: Meet and Hack represents a conscious expansion of community boundaries by participants in g0v. This is achieved by creating the spaces for extended exchange between individuals and collaborative project work across national borders or making international exchange more closely resemble the type of events g0v hosts in Taiwan. Facing the Ocean is thus consciously designed in contrast to the more formal and large-scale conferences that have typically dominated international exchange. The term “meet and hack” is indicative in this respect: hanging out and building personal connections that can form the basis for collaborative international projects (hacking) is the key to building a community. The idea of the meet and hack also reveals the continued importance of offline exchange in a community of activists so familiar with the internet and digital collaboration. Indeed, as is common amongst g0v projects, the idea for the event first emerged impromptu, and it happened at dinner. The original plan was to create a joke “Stupid Government Partnership” after activists from South Korea, Japan, and g0v concluded that all their respective governments had a propensity for reckless actions. What emerged instead was an effort to solidify and expand the ties between them and to encourage more members from each community to get involved. 

Despite being rhetorically framed in reference to cultural and political similarities, we should not assume that such collaboration is frictionless or that a truly regional community of activism has now emerged. Whilst many collaborative projects were initiated at the first Facing the Ocean in 2019, for example “Herstory of East Asia”—a collaborative women’s history database covering Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong—many have encountered difficulties due to the pandemic and of collaborating across different groups. Indeed, at the end of the 3rd Facing the Ocean: Meet and Hack, during a time reserved for updates on progress and reflections on the project, it was notable how people mentioned differences in organisational culture or workflow habits between different communities as an unexpected collaborative roadblock. Certain (but by no means all) projects started at Facing the Ocean events have now come to an end due to such difficulties in collaborating. In addition, it is not always clear what projects are most meaningful for such a diverse set of activists. The edutech project undertaken by g0v, Code For Japan, and Parti, A South Korean group, in 2020 – which aimed to create digital tools to help students and teachers shifting to remote learners – revealed this. The project was intended to respond to a shared issue all countries faced at the time. However, when hearing the presentations, it was clear that it was harder for those from Taiwan to articulate precisely what the local need for edutech was at that time. 

Collaboration within Taiwan or transnationally has never been perfect. Like all g0v projects, international exchange is permanently a work in progress, and much more can be achieved by “rough consensus” than by looking for a particular shared interest. The boundaries of this inchoate transnational activist community are still being drawn, and the meaning of collaboration based on cultural and political similarities is still up for debate. For example, the 2020 Meet and Hack made explicit references to the “Milk Tea Alliance” in the posters on display, and I overheard many mentioning the concept. There was also a conscious effort to invite more participants from Southeast Asia to both the Meet and Hack and the following g0v summit. There has been increasing collaboration between the g0v community and Southeast Asian civic tech groups, but such connections are still often discussed in the future tense. I heard many speak of a desire to expand such connections moving forward beyond a narrow focus on Taiwan’s Northeast Asian partners to East Asia more broadly. What will come of these hopes, or of the transnational activist community currently being built, is still an open question.

Sam Robbins is an editor at Taiwan Insight. He graduated with a master’s degree from the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, and is currently a project coordinator at the Open Culture Foundation. Follow g0v on FacebookTwitter, YouTube, or join their slack

 

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