How Taiwan is inoculating itself against the Uber “virus”

Uber in Taipei in happier times. To be specific, 2015. Image: Getty.

The ongoing clashes over Uber, the controversial ride-sharing app, are a constant reminder of how badly governments are being outpaced by innovation. None of them seems able to achieve the difficult feat of standing up to big, disruptive companies but also harnessing the benefits their technology brings.

In the UK last autumn, the courts did part of that job, ruling that Uber drivers are not self-employed and that the company may have to ensure they get the minimum wage, holiday pay and other entitlements. That ruling is no substitute for a thorough, democratic, consultative process, one that allows the will of the public to be ascertained and brought to bear on the likes of Uber – but then that kind of process can itself seem slow, cumbersome, easily outpaced.

It needn’t be like that, though. Democracy can be nimble – and powerful. Last year Taiwan passed a law that represents a capitulation by Uber to the full force of public consensus, as established through a radically open, democratic online process – “the cyberpunk frontier of democracy”, some have labelled it. Though it’s by no means perfect, Taiwan’s law is an inspiration to anyone wondering how democracy can be reborn in the age of the multinational corporation and the tech disrupter.

Uber’s arrival in Taiwan in 2013 played out in the usual way: the service was hugely popular, taking custom off traditional taxi drivers – but often because it cut corners. Uber drivers didn’t have to have insurance or professional driver’s licences, their charges undercut the fare structure set down in law, and the company wasn’t paying the same taxes as local firms.

Into this conflict stepped the organisation g0v, a network of civic-minded hackers who since 2012 have been opening up Taiwan’s government to public scrutiny. They’ve built "shadow" government websites (with .g0v URLs) to make data radically more accessible, helped draft crowdsourced legislation, and inspired a TV show – beamed into virtual reality headsets – where ministers respond directly to citizens’ ideas.

The g0v team were also a leading force in the 2014 "Sunflower Movement" that saw protestors occupy the Taiwanese parliament and hundreds of thousands gather against a controversial free trade deal with China. So this is not an online movement divorced from the material world: the two “need to work together,” says g0v member Audrey Tang, who was recently appointed Taiwan’s digital minister.

When it came to Uber, g0v teamed up with officials last year, in an online process called vTaiwan, to find out what the public wanted done. But they didn’t just send out a consultation document or start up a Facebook group. Instead, they used a new tool called Pol.is that groups like-minded people together and then allows them to suggest and refine proposals to be voted on.

This four-week process – involving 4,500 people, including users and drivers of both Uber and traditional taxis – worked because it nudged people towards consensus. More extreme statements – such as, "the government should do nothing about Uber" – were rejected, and contributors were encouraged to put up more nuanced ideas. Eventually this yielded seven recommendations that were each backed by over four-fifths of contributors.


Tang then facilitated a meeting in August last year with Uber and government officials – but instead of taking place behind closed doors, as such meetings normally do, it was livestreamed, and live-transcribed, with over 1,800 people watching. Faced with such clear public pressure, and knowing there was a real consensus behind the demands, Uber “caved in” on almost all of them, Tang says. 

The company promised its drivers would get insurance and professional driver’s licences, stop undercutting standard fare structures, and submit ride data to the Taiwanese authorities. Other changes, aimed at making it easier for civil society to start up its own Uber variants, were also agreed. These points have all been incorporated in the new law.

The one big demand that Uber didn’t give way on, Tang has acknowledged, was that it pay a fair amount of tax. “If they commit to being a taxable entity in Taiwan, then the drivers become their employees, and they are fighting a very important legal battle [against that] in California. So if they agree to this last point in Taiwan, the Californian judge [would] use it against them.”

Does the failure to change Uber’s tax stance – perhaps the biggest problem that the company poses to lawmakers worldwide – invalidate the process? “Personally, I held no preconceptions going into the facilitation process, so any agreement is... progress,” Tang says.

The Uber issue could still be settled the hard way. Alongside the "good cop" vTaiwan process, the government is also playing bad cop, threatening to ban Uber for not paying enough tax and fining its drivers millions of pounds for operating illegally. Taxi drivers who weren’t part of the vTaiwan process – because Uber hadn’t hit their cities then – continue to organise traffic-blocking protests. Taiwanese courts have also been after the company.

But vTaiwan showed that the public wants to regulate Uber, not ban it. And that process remains a demonstration of “crowd-sourced agenda-setting power”, Tang says. “I see Uber as an epidemic of the mind. You don’t negotiate with a virus. All you can do is inoculate people – by deliberation, thinking deeply together to develop your immunity to their PR agenda. When you think about something very deeply together, you’re immune.”

And it’s not just Uber that’s having to play ball. Last year g0v ran a similar process with Airbnb, another disruptive company that the government had threatened to ban. Again, the results were striking: every one of the online-generated, consensus-backed recommendations was accepted.

Airbnb owners now have to operate on a level playing field with hotel owners, registering their businesses, installing safety equipment and buying insurance, and, crucially, paying full taxes. And the company itself is having to take notice. When Uber was under the spotlight, Tang says, “their lawyer was there, and their PR person from Asia, and the local CEOs... We used them to set an example. The next time, when we did Airbnb, the co-founder flew in."

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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