How Taiwan used tech to fight COVID-19

Since the end of 2019, countries around the world have been gripped by the impact of the COVID-19. With the rising infection rates across the globe, Taiwan has been hailed as an excellent example of a country that was managing to restrict the spread of the disease.

While hard and bitter lessons in dealing with the 2003 SARS outbreak helped Taiwan prepare and quickly respond to the newly emerging virus via its 124 emergency response action items, Taiwan also owes its relative success largely to the timely and transparent implementation of technology-driven methods.

From European Parliament to countries, such as New Zealand, the UK, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Israel and Sweden, to name a few, many have praised Taiwan’s approach, intending to adopt some of Taiwan’s tech-driven strategies to combat COVID-19.

The Use of Tech & Big Data Analytics to Track COVID-19

Part of Taiwan’s successful strategy rests with its early response and robust case tracing mechanisms.

Having experienced SARS outbreak in 2003, Taiwan has responded quickly to early warning by Metabiota – a health tech company, which predicted that the COVID-19 would reach Taiwan in one week’s time. It has rapidly implemented strong border controls and travel restrictions on countries with reported COVID-19 outbreak before the initial cases reached the country. After the 2003 epidemic, Taiwan has also implemented active surveillance and screening systems, such as infrared thermal imaging scanning (ITIS), in all major airports and ports to screen travelers for fever – a symptom of COVID-19. The existing infrastructure and early warning allowed the country to quickly react to potential arrival of COVID-19 cases and implement measures to control its spread.

Notably, Taiwan’s officials have also done a very detailed mapping of who got the virus from whom since the beginning of the outbreak by the use of big data analytics and were able to stop some of the transmission early.

For example, the country has integrated its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database. For customs and immigration data, it took advantage of the travel ticket scan, making a statistic based on the origin of the flight and the total route over the last two weeks, and used this to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight and travel history

While majority of Taiwanese are enrolled on the national health insurance system – and their health data is readily available to the Government - Taiwan also used mobile technologies to build datasets of foreign travelers. Foreign visitors were asked to scan a QR code that takes them to an online health declaration form where they provide contact information and symptoms.

Leveraging this integration, Taiwan started creating large datasets for analysis. Researchers and engineers acted quickly to create a management system for coordinating health and travel data, which enabled the government to track the 14-day travel histories and symptoms of its citizens and travelers. All hospitals, clinics and pharmacies were given access to this information for each patient. Not only did this trigger real-time alerts based on travel histories and clinical symptoms to aid diagnoses and treatment, but the extensive database also made it possible to identify potential cases at the border. The combination of big data analysis allowed to quarantine those in high-risk areas while low-risk individuals were issued a medical authorization.

Location-Tracking for Self-Isolation

Location-tracking has aided Taiwan to implement self-isolation measures.

Governments around the world, including Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Hong Kong, Israel, Taiwan and China are starting to combine technology with human efforts as a quarantine compliance mechanism, but Taiwan’s system is believed to be the first to use mobile phone tracking for that purpose. In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, the country has rolled out a geo-fence, or “electronic fence”, which uses mobile phone location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes.

Those who are placed in high-risk groups or identified with COVID-19 are given government-issued mobile phones and monitored via location-tracking. This technology monitors phone signals and alerts authorities when quarantined individuals leave their designated shelter locations or turn off their mobile devices. Authorities then contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes. Officials also call twice a day to ensure people don’t avoid tracking by leaving their phones at home.

The Use of Technology to Detect & Control Shortages of Critical Supplies

Data-driven insights and technologies ensured availability of critical supplies. 

During the early stages of the epidemic, Taiwan had the foresight to organise the production of a large number of masks and other critical suppliers. The government worked quickly with local technology research institutes and the smart automation sectors to increase the production of templates to meet the needs of the domestic market.

More importantly, Taiwan’s example of solving the controversy of “panic buying” with IT technology has further implications for the governments around the world, which are grappling with the demand and supply of critical medical products.

By the first week of February, Taiwan started rationing surgical masks to ensure that critical staff are able to acquire needed supplies.  To avoid shortages, officials used IT to estimate the region’s supply of masks, negative pressure isolation rooms, and other health provisions. They have also implemented “Mask-Real Name” system, which sets price limits on masks and rations them using individuals’ National Health Insurance cards and an online ordering mechanism.

Additionally, the government has been quick to react to tech community’s solutions. To save people time looking for stores selling face masks, a Taiwanese software engineer build an online real-time map that showed where masks are stocked. Following this idea, the Government employed private sector to rapidly develop a better version of the information platform with government data. The new online real-time map now supports the government in educating the public on availability of supplies. Through the website, managed by Polstar Technologies, Inc., the public can monitor the availability of masks around their homes. The location detection page provides features for the classification of types of adult and children masks, which health centres provide masks, distance from the location of the seeker, and when the last accurate data was updated.

The government’s approach has underlined several key lessons. First, public-private partnerships can deliver quick and tangible results. Second, if you have a good understanding of critical product-related information, like the Taiwanese government, you can ask private sector or IT developers to collaborate for quick solutions. Third, it is also worth learning from the agile response of government officials who make policy decisions. It took Taiwanese government only three days to discuss how to use mask data with private developers and upgrade the map. It was developers who made the app easy to use but without the quick judgement of the government, its ‘mask map’ would not have come out so quickly.

The Use of AI, Data Analytics and Digital Communication for Accurate Public Information

Taiwan has also used AI, data analytics and frequent digital communication to help slow the spread of COVID-19, track the virus and provide citizens with real-time information on how they can minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19.

In addition to daily press conferences and open government data on the outbreak, the Taiwanese government used digital tools frequently to communicate to the public amid the virus outbreak. For example, Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, as well as many politicians, have used their official social media accounts on outlets, such as Facebook, Line and Youtube, to keep the public well-informed on everything from the number of available masks to the updated policy. Taiwanese fact-checking institutions and groups, including Taiwan FactCheck Center and MyGoPen, have also made an effort to fact-check and correct disinformation or misinformation on the epidemic, which mostly circulates online, meanwhile disseminating the right information to the public.

The government also used AI to create real-time digital updates alerting citizens to avoid locations where infections had been detected. Civil society has further complemented the effort by using this information to create tools that help citizens get clear and transparent picture about their personal exposure. For example, through a developer webpage, managed by GitHub, Inc., a group of programmers has developed a map-based code, using the Google Maps timelines, which can be used to detect the history of person’s journey in the last few years. From the results of COVID-19 detection, web users can estimate whether they could have made contact with “red areas”, which according to Taiwan CDC, are the zones where the COVID-19 cases were discovered. 

By using digital channels for communicating transparent and accurate information to the public, working together with technology businesses and civic society, and utilising data-driven solutions, Taiwan has managed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Understanding how these technology solutions have enabled Taiwan to respond to the pandemic can be instructive to other countries grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

  • Dominykas Broga

    Dominykas Broga

    Programme Manager | International Trade
    T 07931 565 239

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