Pioneers of Open Government: g0v's Civic Hackers


2017 / July

Lung Pei-ning and Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Scott Williams

Founded in 2012 in the spirit of freedom and transparency of information, the online group g0v (pronounced “gov zero”) aims to harness the strength of the masses to bring about social change.

Civic technology is on the rise around the world, and Taiwan’s civic hackers have been working hard to situate Taiwan at the forefront of this new trend. So far, they have been succeeding, using their numbers and their apps to turn Taiwan into one of the top three societies for civic technology in the world.

Civic technology has figured in several recent civic events. The Arab Spring of 2010, an Internet-enabled civic awakening, is a case in point. And Taiwan’s memories of its 2014 Sunflower Student Movement are still fresh. g0v played a key role in the latter movement, distributing news and information about what was happening in a timely, transparent and open fashion.

A concern with public affairs

Kao Chia-­liang looks every inch a coder: he has long, naturally curly hair and a laid-back attitude. But he’s also deeply committed to civic engagement, and is one of the founders of g0v, which uses technology to promote that very thing.

Fascinated by computers and programming since his childhood, he wrote code even when confined to his bed by illness. “Programs create new technology, change people’s lives, and can even change the world,” he enthuses.

Kao didn’t become interested in civic issues until much later. In fact, it wasn’t until he saw a 40-second advertisement in support of the government’s Economic Power-up Plan in October 2012 that he began questioning how government operates.

He then decided to analyze the government’s budget. He came across a British Internet group that had developed an application to track where tax dollars were going, and referenced that project’s source code to create his own “central government budget” project. That, in turn, sparked the formation of g0v.

Starting from “zero”

His “central government budget” website attracted a great deal of interest when it launched. In contrast to the government’s official budget, which consists of hundreds of pages of impenetrable text, g0v’s “central government budget” encourages understanding through the use of visual design and relatable equivalencies.

For example, Taiwan spends NT$305.9 billion on defense, which g0v points out is an amount equal to 10.1 billion cups of boba tea, a 396,000-square-meter palace, or 11.81 million iPhone 5’s.

While working on the project, Kao also realized that the government’s policy-making efforts had little connection to public opinion. He cofounded g0v in 2012 to promote a rethinking of the government’s role from a metaphoric “zero.”

People often confuse g0v with “gov,” the English abbreviation for “government” that it resembles. Many also wonder, “Is g0v a political party? Is it anti-government?”

Neither government, nor political party, nor yet political opposition, g0v is instead a community that stresses openness and the equality of everyone’s views, one possessed of values drawn from the open, independent and sharing spirit of the online world.

g0v participants like to say: “Don’t ask why ‘no one’ is doing a particular thing. First, admit that you yourself are ‘no one.’ Actively become ‘no one,’ and other ‘no ones’ will join with you to do that thing.”

Civic hackers

g0v earned a name for itself during the Sunflower Student Movement, when some members of the group went to the scene of the protests to provide timely reports on what was happening, while others built a platform that aggregated protest-related information. In the process, g0v itself became transparent, releasing on social media the source code for all of the processes it had developed. Participants in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement went on to use g0v’s source code in their own web platform.

The shared goal of every civic hacker is a transparent government. Such hackers gather at regular times to address what they see as problem areas, and then work on related projects in marathon sessions. Once these hackathons hash out a prototype, still more people pitch in.

Kao believes that even pretty good policies have flaws, and g0v’s projects are devoted to finding solutions to such flaws. He notes that, on average, Taiwan experiences a major social issue every two months, and argues that these need to be discussed. Fortunately, we no longer have to passively wait for the traditional media to air our views. Instead, new technologies are providing new opportunities for civic engagement and dialogue, which are, in turn, spurring the government to revise its policies.

g0v projects focus on and actively pursue solutions to public issues, and have a very high success rate. For example, within 24 hours of g0v’s launch of a project to track political contributions, civic hackers had digitized more than 30,000 files. Kao remains positive even when projects fail. “There are barriers to entry to participation in the political process, but our group enables everyone to take part and have an impact, even if that participation is superficial.”

g0v has adopted the helpful and open attitude of the Internet’s open source community, and strongly emphasizes “doing something.” The number of its members and results of its projects have made Taiwan’s civic hacker community one of the top three in the world and drawn international attention to this new aspect of the “Taiwan experience.”

Civic technology promotes participation

Kao and others from Taiwan last year attended a summit in France of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that promotes open government. Kao shared some of g0v’s accomplishments as part of a roundtable there. One of these was that the Tai­pei City Government adopted g0v’s source code as a basis for its own “participatory budget,” a project that encourages citizens to participate in budget planning via a web portal, just three years after g0v’s launch of its central government budget project.

Seeing this as a very positive development, Kao has shared internationally the role of the civic­-tech community in Taiwan’s model for interacting and cooperating with the government. He has also explained the follow-on applications that have grown out of that cooperation. He says that they have built their success on the foundation of mutual trust they have established between the government and the citizenry, and that their achievements offer practical examples of the usefulness of civic technology.

The vTaiwan digital platform offers another example of the citizenry and government borrowing from one another. Originally created by g0v as a means to encourage civic participation in public policy by gathering a variety of opinions and forging a consensus, it was later adopted by the government as a portal through which citizens can offer feedback that the government then takes into consideration when making policy.

The government is making use of more than just g0v projects. It’s also made g0v member Audrey Tang the Executive Yuan’s digital tsar. Tang has brought her g0v membership and experience with her into government, where she is pushing the twin goals of digitalization and open government.

Tang’s new model includes an open-government contact person called a “participation officer” (PO). Every department of the Executive Yuan is to have a PO, who will hold public discussions on a regular basis on current issues, including proposals such as allowing the formation of civil service unions, banning the sale of sharks’ fins, ending after-school study halls, and crash-testing domestically produced vehicles. POs will invite NGOs and industry representatives to participate in the discussions, and make the entire process open and transparent.

The front wall of Tang’s Executive Yuan office is covered with sticky notes that make a colorful contrast to the other­wise serious work atmosphere in the building. Once we are inside, she pulls out a tablet computer and shows us an open government project called the “sprouts dictionary.”

Originally a g0v project, the “sprouts dictionary” is an online multilingual dictionary, the entries of which were sourced from the Ministry of Education’s online Mandarin, Southern Min, and Hakka dictionaries. Internationally praised since its launch, the “sprouts dictionary” has already become a valuable tool for foreign students learning traditional Chinese characters.

Even better, the dictionary is still growing and spawning additional projects. For example, a French student familiar with open source resources but still learning Chinese has added English, German, and French content to the dictionary. Meanwhile, the UK’s Oxford University has used the dictionary’s source code to create databases for other languages, including Zulu.

The “sprouts dictionary” project has attracted the attention of linguists and educators around the world. By making the source code available to others, the project has extended its reach to other tongues, aiding in efforts to preserve and learn endangered languages.

Information security and human rights

g0v has been starting up projects on its own initiative since its founding in 2012. Its model relies on other people joining in and helping as they see fit, working to improve the functionality and ease-of-use of the tools g0v has created. The ongoing use of these projects and the other applications they have spawned have kept Taiwan’s open-source community active on the international scene.

g0v also holds a biennial summit that attracts nearly 1,000 participants. These include members of the open-source and civic-tech communities of more than ten nations, who come to share their experience and the results of their projects.

At the end of 2016, g0v established the portal to report in depth on conferences abroad, the results of projects, and Taiwan’s participation in both. The platform provides a framework for international ties by offering these reports in both Chinese and English for readers in Taiwan and abroad.

The current state of development in civic tech is largely the result of the community’s commitment to “freedom,” which is exemplified by its response to Asia’s ongoing human rights violations and the related lack of information security that is exposing human rights workers to danger. The community realized that people in Europe and the United States were unfamiliar with the human rights situation in Asia, and too far away to provide timely assistance when human rights were violated.

Kao’s team therefore began working on an information security for human rights project, one which is drawing on Taiwan’s free and open environment and its information security professionals. The team hopes to cultivate information security awareness among human rights workers, while also working to establish an information hub on human rights in Asia.

Taiwan’s open source community has become world renowned for the scope of its activities. Originally a social movement, it has evolved into a civic movement that has made it easier than ever for citizens in our digital age to participate in public policy debates. With the rise of g0v, civic hackers are actively participating in a grassroots effort to make information transparent, bringing the goal of truly open government a step closer.     

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X 使用【台灣光華雜誌】APP!