Data and Technology: How Taiwan beat Virus with Technology?
Just 100 miles off the coast of South Eastern China is the island country Taiwan who also happens to be the closest neighbor to China in terms of movement of people across the borders. Despite that little distance, and substantial trade and exchange with China, Taiwan has managed to contain the number of covid cases to less than 500 and just seven deaths so far, giving it 168th position in the world. How did Taiwan do it? Let’s take a look at the implementation of technology in this battle by Taiwan.
What difference does 100 miles and effective surveillance of social media make in the war against Covid-19? A great deal, if you take Taiwan’s success in the raging Coronavirus pandemic.
How did Taiwan do it?
The success story of Taiwan’s battle owes it to the technology that was harnessed to instant reaction. The World woke up to the New Year of 2020 to the danger that was awaiting to exploit the people across the World. But, Taiwan woke up to the warning chatter across the Chinese mainland about an unknown viral outbreak.
Taiwan started New Year on a war footing preparing for containing the spread of a potential outbreak. The country initiated extensive surveillance on the chatter in popular social media platforms in China like Weibo and WeChat which proved to be effective and gave warning of brewing of a pandemic in Wuhan province in the mainland.
A senior government health officer by the name of Philip Lo is said to have raised the first alarm in Taiwan. He came across a series of posts on PTT Bulletin Board System, a terminal-based bulletin board system based in Taiwan, started in 1995. The posts had a compilation of text messages and social media entries that referred to an unknown strain of pneumonia outbreak spreading across Wuhan.
Incidentally, one of the posts was written by the late Li Wenliang, a doctor based in Wuhan who first shared his findings with his colleagues on WeChat and was wrongly implicated as being a rumor monger. He was arrested, and released a few days later to become a national hero but unfortunately died from COVID-19 later.
The Taiwan health officials immediately sent out emails to their counterparts in Beijing requesting additional details on the chatter. Later that same day, Wuhan’s health committee released a statement confirming 27 people as infected with an unknown virus. This was also the time that Taiwan informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the events unfolding in Wuhan.
Combining Data and Technology
Taiwan learnt a lot from the 2003 SARS outbreak. They eventually had the third highest number of infections in the world. The Taiwanese health authorities had figured out pretty early that Covid-19 patients could be asymptomatic. This helped them to not miss a single infected person.
Taiwan used its national health insurance and immigration database to connect past travel with clinical visits to help alert officials of possible cases and trends early on. This greatly helped them to identify cases early providing real-time alerts.
This was also made available to hospitals and doctors, leading to more accurate diagnoses and treatment. All this was in place by March, a time when most other countries were yet to recognize the threat pandemic posed.
Mobile data (triangulation method) was also used extensively to track and monitor clusters and people living in high-risk areas. This kind of monitoring and contact tracing was done without asking for additional information from the user, like location data, resulting in better standards of user privacy.
Information centers and toll free numbers were set up in each city to disseminate crucial pieces of information for Taiwan citizens. Medical masks and PPEs were produced in large masses by the government; the prices of the same were fixed beforehand to avoid black marketeering and price hikes.
Citizens chipped in. One person named Howard Wu set up a crowd-sourced platform to indicate the availability of masks and PPEs across Taiwan. Soon after, Audrey Tang, a self-taught technology expert in Taiwan and the Digital minister for Taiwan, released NHI data about pharmacy locations, using which Mr Wu was able to upgrade his platform using Google Maps to show the locations of pharmacies and whether they had mask stocks. This became a huge platform of collaboration between technologists and the government.
Taiwan also installed infrared thermal imaging scanning across all airports and ports by late February. All this was done without lockdowns. That is why Taiwan’s success story is even sweeter.