Meet Audrey Tang, the woman who beat COVID-19. She’s too modest to put it that way, of course. The Digital Minister of Taiwan is quick to say that “I’m just the face,” and that the real credit belongs to the people of Taiwan, who used a mix of open-source tech, crowdsourcing and blockchain-inspired innovation to develop a contract-tracing system that people actually used, keeping coronavirus cases low.
In one remarkable stretch, Taiwan went 200 days without a COVID-19 case, and without China-style lockdowns. The secret sauce? Thanks to privacy-protecting encryption, citizens were happy to scan QR codes and “check in” at every restaurant, store, bar or cafe. They did this without revealing their personal data. It worked so well that Taiwan reduced the contract tracing cycle to an astonishing 24 minutes.
It’s an unorthodox system, and Tang is anything but orthodox. She is many things: A genius who dropped out of school at the age of eight to focus on computer programming (your move, Marc Zuckerberg); a legendary developer in the open-source community; a hacktivist who helped the revolutionary “Sunflower movement” come to power in Taiwan; the nation’s youngest-ever minister; the nation’s first transgender minister; the nation’s first “minister without portfolio” (giving her a sweeping scope) and a believer in “radical transparency” – all of Tang’s communications are available to see online.
Blockchain plays a role in this. “I learned about fully homomorphic encryption [an encryption method that preserves privacy] by reading the latest research that came from the distributed ledger community,” says Tang, who prefers to use the word “ledger” over “blockchain.” She implemented tools that let Taiwan citizens quickly come to a consensus – not just about macro issues that you vote on every few years (such as who should lead the country), but on hyper-specific, real-time, micro issues such as “What is the best QR scanner to use for a contact tracing system?”