Prototyping Future Democracy

“Instead of asking why nobody’s doing this or that, we should be like nobody and start something already”

In Taiwan’s civic tech community g0v, we share a motto of “being nobody” which means when thinking “why is nobody doing it?” be that nobody. In this breakout session Shu Yang will introduce the way “we nobodies” built the infrastructure in the government and set up a process to policy making, which is open to all nobodies. The software pol.is will also be introduced in more detail and exercise with participants.

You can see Shu Yang’s presentation slides here, and continue the conversation with Shu Yang on Twitter or Linkedin.

Please see the full transcript of the talk below.

[00:00:00] Shu Yang Lin: Hi, everyone. I’m Shu Yang Lin from Taiwan and Taiwan is a very young democracy from only, I guess, 11 hours in the future. But we have been prototyping democracy for the past 30 years. Thank you. 

We’ve been prototyping democracy since 1987, since the lift of Martial Law over there. And since then the democracy and public participation in Taiwan has been developed in several formats, from face to face to deliberate over the internet.

And then the today’s Taiwan, democracy is more or less like these pictures showing up there, this picture. So today this is how our democracy look like. These people you see in a photo here [00:01:00] are citizens in Taiwan, participating in a civic tech hackathon that is organized by more than 4,000 volunteers every other month, and then we call ourselves g0v. And it’s written g-0-v. 

In g0v, we share this notion “to be nobody” which was just introduced. It’s thinking about, instead of asking why nobody’s doing this or that, we should be like nobody and start something already. So in a nutshell, we actually prototype a much better version of how we think the society should be using emerging or existing technologies.

And through that we just kind of prototype the future democracy, use a lot of fun experiments, and one of the experiments I’m going to proudly present to you is to fork the government. I’m not sure how many people actually [00:02:00] haven’t heard of the idea of forking the government. Can you raise your hand? If you are raising your hand, if I could invite you all to read it out for me. Three, two, one: fork the government. Okay, great. 

I really enjoyed this project because, not only just because it’s a fun experiment that is interesting to do many times. But it’s actually very efficient. What we did in the Taiwanese government was kind of inspired by the g0v community. And in g0v community, when we were there just kind of doing all the hacking, making all the ideas with the civic hackers, all we did was looking at all the websites. I’m going to do it very slowly. All the websites that we didn’t like, like answering g0v.tw, and then we make another version. We make another copy, and then we make it more open data inside. We make it more, [00:03:00] better user experience. And then, we kind of just change the URL from g-o-v to g-0-v. 

So the magic happens. It solved this discoverability issue. When citizens, if we find ourselves looking at a government website that we probably didn’t quite like, what we need to do is simply, you know, go on the URL, change the o to 0. And then you’ll find out yourself landing in a shadow government with open data and better UX and everything like that. Does that make sense? Okay. Let me know if I talk too fast, I’ll speak slowly. 

So one of the example that we, just as a symbol for this idea of forking the government, is to fork the budget website from the government. So, you know, usually the government budget [00:04:00] websites is like a lot of pages, very wordy, a lot of tables and you can find PDF links inside and then you probably have to open the PDF files and find all the numbers and try to make sense of it. So the g0v nobodies, we managed to scrap the website and make it open data and by the way, make it more interactive so that it’s more digestible.

And then the good thing happens afterwards, is the government actually merge it back. So actually a Taiwan- the Taipei city government, sorry- end up merging it back. So if you type budget.taipei, right now you can see the new visualization over there. 

Another fun experiment that also took place some years ago, around 2014, is another experiment about prototyping an open consultation process for digital regulatory reform. So since [00:05:00] 2014, that was the year, or the era of self media, right? In that time people are, you know, like digital natives were not hesitant to become YouTubers or Instagram influencers and the Sunflower Movement took place. Sunflower Movement in Taiwan took place in 2014, March. It was a movement led by students in Taiwan who couldn’t bear with the MP sovereignist to deliberate about a surface trade deal with the Beijing office. So the students, they occupied the parliament for 22 days and conducted real deliberation over there. 

So what does it have to do with the g0v people? They also went to the parliament, they also joined forces and brought in some livestream cables and devices and started livestreaming inside, putting all the activities online, broadcasting.

So then the activities in the parliament, [00:06:00] when people conducting real deliberation could be livestreamed and the entire process could be open for the world to see. So it could be truly reported as how it was, as in nonviolent and peaceful. It is nothing more than open space technology where nothing’s planned, it’s open agenda, people were just hanging out in the street, talking about how we can better our society. In that moment of time, no matter, people on the streets, people occupying parliament, or probably people who were supposed to be in the parliament, but then end up, couldn’t make it, we all share the same need that we want to have a platform that can enable us to talk and generate rational discussion, generate a solution that suits for the nation.

So the lady in the picture over here, she is the former Cyberspace Minister, [00:07:00] Jaclyn Tsai. She condensed an idea onto a Post-it and then she attended next g0v hackathon that’s organized every other month. And then she proposed this Post-it and asked: can we do something? And nobodies in g0v community took that challenge and built a platform called vTaiwan or virtual Taiwan. And funnily enough, one of the nobodies, I’m going to just say her name, Audrey Tang, she was one of the groups that collaborated and worked on vTaiwan. And now she’s the Digital Minister of Taiwan who I work with now, right now. 

So vTaiwan, what is vTaiwan? vTaiwan is an experiment that prototypes an open consultation process for digital regulatory reform. So to change additional regulation, there’s a certain process we need to go for. And this process is now co-created by the [00:08:00] community of vTaiwan, which is again, nobodies of civic hackers who are not government people, and we just kind of spend our time volunteering to be there, joining hackathons and come up with a process co-creately. And it’s a flexible process for the deliberation. Starting from the proposal of an idea that has to be committed by both the government side and society side. And the second part is the opinions, opinion part, which we collect opinions from both online and offline. And then we reflect. And most of the time in a physical room, face to face, inviting all stakeholders. But then we also livestream the process to the internet and then write a draft bill and send it to the parliament. 

It has some tools behind, but there’s no secret. It’s all open source tools. There is some tools we also use which are private companies, but [00:09:00] we are open to provide all the tools we use right now. The only secret is probably we don’t really built one platform that suits with the whole purpose. We try to use free softwares, open source tools, so that it’s easier to swap any other tool that we find more useful. 

And the physical kind of meetup space is more or less like this photo over here, where people are just kind of circling around. It’s kind of like this stage right now, if I’m the pizza, right? So going around, talking about what issue they want to talk about, and if there’s any chance we can modify the regulation. So the way how we did it is when a topic emerge, we visualize feelings through web and technology. 

The interface you see over here is called Pol.is, and on the top section, you can see all the people’s comments. [00:10:00] In the second section, you can imput your own comment. And in the bottom section, you can see the visualization of how people actually voted. 

In this interface you can realize there’s actually no reply button on top because, we call this phenomenon from reply to rewrite. Because when people are interacting with this interface, you basically can look at all the people’s comments, but you cannot reply to it, and then there’s no way, no space for the troll to grow. The phenomenon we call from reply to rewrite is shown in this diagram where a more divisive conversation in the beginning will grow after one or two months to become more consensus statement.

And then we’ll simply bring this statement and core rough consensus into a face to face meeting [00:11:00] and also livestream it over the internet. The meetings, we actually bring all the stakeholders into the same room and seat them around the U shaped table. And this is a view or the perspective from a 360 camera that we livestream to the internet, where we also ask the physical facilitator to read out these comments of the chat channel from time to time so that the voice of the people online can be heard as well. 

And to date, vTaiwan has around 26 cases launched on the platform and around 5 law amendments and 20 regulatory reform has been made.

It brings people directly into governance and helps lawmakers to  implement decisions with a greater degree of legitimacy. And it helps us envision what future democracy could look like. There’s the term recursive public we borrowed [00:12:00] from professor Christopher Kelty that is describing this interactive environment or community environment that keeps track of always updated consensus from the society. And this model has been reproduced in many other cities and we try to let other cities fork the model as well. It’s being reproduced in Tokyo, in New York, in Toronto. 

And I see vTaiwan could look like a prototype that experiments how the Taiwanese government and Taiwanese society co-create policies together, but I think this experiment is more than just for Taiwan or for any government formation. It is, I think, a way to generate consensus from a large group of people from 20, 400, 400,000, a city scale and even national [00:13:00] scale. It is a new way how we prototype, we can work together and generate rough consensus.

So I think vTaiwan’s excellence is not only based on how many cases has been done, but also based on the scalable and sustainable model of collaborative model we prototype. So to answer where we go as a society, or what do we want from technology, I think I’ll simply invite you all to join us and be nobody.

So if you’re willing to type this URL in your browser today: join.g0v.today, and that’s becoming my dream. Thank you.