04 October 2023
In 2014, protests erupted in Taiwan in the wake of controversial legislation which would open the island up to greater economic integration with The People’s Republic of China. People feared a deterioration of Taiwanese democracy. The Sunflower Movement protests led to widespread mobilisation of civil society. Among those to take action was a civic tech community called gøv, which had been founded in 2012 to promote digital transparency.
At the end of 2014, government minister Jaclyn Tsai attended a gøv hackathon. Impressed by what she saw, she invited gøv to design a neutral platform to engage experts and relevant members of the public in large-scale deliberation on specific topics.
The biggest problem they faced is that online spaces for debate are engineered to capture attention, not to encourage a productive civil discourse. The solution that gøv came up with, vTaiwan, was specifically designed to address this problem.
A new form of civic engagement
The vTaiwan platform enabled citizens, civil-society organisations, experts, and elected representatives to discuss proposed laws via its website, as well as in face-to-face meetings and hackathons. Its goal was to help policy makers improve decision making and give legitimacy to legislation through public participation.
In line with this objective, the initiative aimed to give lawmakers a better understanding of what the public wanted. According to the vTaiwan website, 26 issues had been discussed on the platform between its creation in 2015 and 2018, and 80% of them had led to some decisive government action. By 2020, vTaiwan’s mailing list included 200,000 individuals.
The platform relies on a mix of open source tools for sharing information, soliciting and holding polls. However, the key component of vTaiwan is Polis, a discussion platform developed by a team of Seattle-based developers. In a nutshell, Polis encourages the formation of ‘rough consensus.’ Once that consensus is reached, key stakeholders including policy makers are invited to a live-streamed, face-to-face meeting to draw up specific recommendations, potentially leading to new laws.
Polis: Gamified consensus finding
Polis has been central to the success of vTaiwan. A topic is put up for debate and anyone with an account can comment and downvote or upvote other people’s comments. While this may appear similar to other participation tools or forums, there are several features that set Polis apart.
First is that Polis does not allow users to respond to other people’s comments, drastically reducing the risk of trolls disrupting the debate. Second, it turns the upvote and downvote feature into one that clusters people who vote similarly. A visualisation emerges highlighting where there are like-minded viewpoints and division.
As the debate begins, Polis draws a map showing all the different knots of agreement and dissent as they emerge. As views are expressed in greater numbers, the platform gives visibility to statements that find consensus not just among people within the same ideological bubble, but with those outside as well.
Polis in essence gamifies the process of finding consensus. It encourages users to propose and refine viewpoints to win greater support from all sides of a discussion. The greater the consensus around a viewpoint, the greater attention it gets.
As the avatars of each user cluster around specific viewpoints, the platform’s design hides divisive statements, provocation and trolling. The debates are spared the toxicity prevalent on other platforms, which so often fail to foster civil discourse.
Eventually, a group of consensual statements emerge. The final viewpoints may not appear like any of the ones made at the beginning of the discussion. The new consensus can then be turned into laws and regulations.
Breaking political deadlocks: The Uber case
In 2015, Global car sharing giant Uber provided an early test for vTaiwan. Like in other jurisdictions, Uber was trying to enter the Taiwanese market and was encountering resistance from local taxi drivers, leading to a flurry of debate. Initially, opinions were strong on both sides of the debate between pro- and anti-Uber camps – the latter eventually growing far larger.
However, as vTaiwan users revised viewpoints, they coalesced around more consensual statements like ‘the government should set up a fair regulatory regime,’ and ‘private passenger vehicles should be registered.’
The two camps came to agree that there should be a level playing field between Uber and taxi firms. It was a scenario which protected customers while also creating more competition. In the end, the Taiwanese government would create new regulations that were informed by the consensus found on vTaiwan.
Recent developments in Taiwan’s digital democracy
vTaiwan hasn’t necessarily revolutionised Taiwan’s political system. But it has proven effective at shaping many pieces of legislation in Taiwan’s digital economy – from areas like e-scooters to FinTech and beyond.
While vTaiwan has been criticised for being, as one policymaker described it, “a tiger without teeth,” it has nevertheless had an impact. Another more recent online debate platform called ‘Join,’ also overseen by the Digital Affairs Ministry of Taiwan, has been a big success. The purview of Join has gone well beyond vTaiwan covering issues like drunk driving, sexual assault, and child abuse, while including a greater number of older and less tech-savvy users.
In 2023, Taiwan’s government has embraced a new Polis project. The rapid growth of AI has led the Ministry of Digital Affairs to join forces with the Collective Intelligence Project to launch ‘Alignment Assemblies.’
The initiative’s goal is to provide citizens the ability to contribute to the safe and sustainable development of AI, as well as reducing risks presented by new technology. “The purpose is to discover the AI risks of most concern to the people and share these with leading industry experts who can tailor response strategies accordingly,” says Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang.
And Taiwan is not the only country using Polis to change the face of its democracy. In September, Finland became the latest to experiment with the platform, launching the “what do you think, Finland?” campaign, citing the case of Uber in Taiwan as inspiration.