COVID-19 has made everyone from government to ordinary citizens more aware of the efficacy of data utilization than ever before. With the global pandemic changing the many facets of our everyday lives and local economies, data –and specifically open data– has proven to be not only an instrumental tool of mere ‘information’ but also ‘solution’.
The role of data in the fight against coronavirus was particularly notable in Taiwan, whose pandemic response has been hailed one of the world’s best. The country’s effective data utilization and civil society-government collaboration have translated into useful tools like a ‘mask map’ with real-time data of pharmacy availability. The trailblazer behind these efforts, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang, was so widely celebrated that she was even dubbed as having “hacked the pandemic”.
Japan has also been busy coordinating its own efforts in data utilization, through the government-backed V-RESAS – an open database that visualises and analyses the economic impact of COVID-19 across various regions. Standing for Regional Economy Society Analysing System, the RESAS has been hailed “the world’s largest national economic data viz tool”, one that could help pave the way for better regional government planning and policy.
In a FabCafe first, we invited Audrey Tang, alongside V-RESAS design engineer Kinya Tagawa, statistician Hiromu Nishiuchi and FabCafe/Loftwork CEO Mitsuhiro Suwa, to weigh in on Taiwan’s civic tech and Japan’s digitalization strategy, as part of our event series on the V-RESAS, regional revitalization and data utilization.
What is V-RESAS?
Led by the Cabinet Office, V-RESAS was launched in June 2020 as an open database that visualizes the economic impact of COVID-19 throughout Japan. Aggregating data from businesses, it tracks human flow, consumption, food and beverage, accommodation, events, employment, corporate finances and more.
Available to access by anyone, with the added functionality of downloadable graphs, V-RESAS acts as an information infrastructure that can be used to identify new strategies and ideas, both within and outside of the context of COVID-19.
Regional Development Through V-RESAS
One of the primary goals of V-RESAS is the revitalization of local, regional economies. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, much of the economic development in various regions – specifically those that are increasingly dependent on tourism and events-based revenue – has been impeded. What actions, then, can be considered by local governments and businesses, based on the big data that V-RESAS provides to the public?
As statistician Hiromu Nishiuchi explained at the FabCafe data utilization event, V-RESAS’s consumption map shows the sales trends of various items, based on data compiled from supermarkets across Japan. Using the example of shochu, data had indicated consumption of the beverage as remaining flat – contrary to rumors of a ‘home drinking’ trend at the time. On the other hand, data also indicated increasing demand for spirits, which may be due to its use as a substitute disinfectant. Thus, one could conclude that businesses would be better suited to utilizing their technology and production facilities in a new product area, rather than developing new sales channels in supermarkets for home consumption.
Open innovation: The secret Taiwan’s ‘mask map’ success
With regards to the ways in which big data is progressing outside of Japan, Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister and liaison between the Cabinet and the civic tech community, provided a bigger picture of the proactive data utilization system in Taiwan.
Taiwan is a country with a thriving civic tech community. In 2012, the civic organization ‘G0v’ (Gov Zero) was established for anyone to collaborate and collect information about the community, such as collecting data on PM2.5 air pollution.
As Tang explained, not only are Taiwan’s central government and local governments well coordinated in terms of information, they are also closely connected to the civic tech community; when there is a need to collect data, all parties can collaborate smoothly.
In the case of air pollution, there is a limit to how much the private sector can measure alone. In areas where it is difficult for citizens to take measurements, such as no-go zones, the local government is able to step in to take measurements and complete the data. As Tang explained, successful cooperation between government and the private sector has to be predicated on trust.
Such a relationship also played a significant role in the success of Taiwan’s notorious ‘mask map’, an application that allows users to see the real-time availability of masks in pharmacies across the nation. Developed by a software engineer in the civic tech community, the mask map quickly received the support of the government, other developers and even Google.
Though pharmacies were not receptive to the application initially, having already implemented their own system, developers were quick to update the service based on their needs, such as excluding themselves from the map at their own timing. For Tang, the fact that needs and ideas were born and implemented through open innovation was the secret to the success of the mask map.
"Find common ground and innovate to leave no one behind”
With the concept of ‘citizen data science’ gaining more traction in the world of data science in recent years, Nishiuchi pointed out that the V-RESAS had been created based on the very same idea, intended to be accessed by a variety of people. Surprised to learn that the development itself is being done by the community in Taiwan, he asked Tang how the community was created and what is being done to keep it ‘healthy’.
Tang cited ‘respect for emotions’ as an important factor in promoting social innovation, using the example of the Presidential Hackathon, a government initiative aimed to demonstrate its commitment to open-source data, data utilization and social innovation. For Tang, it is important to have the participation of the general public to implement social innovation in society, rather than using a top-down approach from the government.
Tang’s personal philosophy is often rooted in the intersections of people and technology. According to her, “The technological evolution sometimes creates conflicts and tensions.” Even so, she strives to find the common ground and the shared values among different positions; based on the premise that there are points in which even different values can be agreed upon, innovation that can be realized without leaving anyone out.
The panelists also spoke about ‘radical transparency’ – a concept that emphasizes the openness of organizational process and data across not only governance, but also software design and business.
Pointing out its relevance to V-RESAS, Loftwork CEO Mitsuhiro Suwa highlighted the importance of designing both the website and the relationships between people. Tang agreed, adding that it is also about designing how people are positioned and who interacts with the data. Reflecting on her own efforts, she said, “I’m trying to design in a way that doesn’t include myself in it.”