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Taipei deputy mayor: Smart city innovations will make post-pandemic life easier

Huang Shan-shan says Taipei prepared for future coronavirus outbreaks, set to make most of return to normal

Taipei Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan. (Taiwan News photo)

Taipei Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan. (Taiwan News photo) (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — As cities around the world strive to return to normal amid the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the Taiwanese capital has held a 10,000-person concert in addition to several trade fairs, both on and offline, since the outbreak began.

Ranked eighth on the Institute for Management Development’s latest Smart City Index, the Taipei City Government has swiftly adopted smart technologies to tackle real-world problems during the pandemic. It created a COVID-19 dashboard to effectively distribute medical supplies, track people undergoing home quarantine, and make better decisions backed up by verifiable data.

Discussing Taipei’s COVID-19 response, Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan (黃珊珊) told Taiwan News: "With our experience handling the deadly SARS virus 17 years ago, the city government immediately responded and quickly organized a task force, using advanced technologies that allow much more control through smart devices."

Data-driven decisions

In February, the unexpected arrival of many ex-pats and foreign visitors to Taipei prompted Huang, who commands the city's pandemic task force, to design a real-time dashboard that constantly visualizes data as they are updated by district offices and businesses. The data include, for example, the number of people staying at designated hotels and other facilities qualified to accept guests undergoing the 14-day quarantine and the number visiting nightclubs and other high-risk venues.

"When a confirmed case has been identified, we can immediately track down close contacts and respond quickly," said Huang. For instance, when a woman working at a hostess club was confirmed to have the coronavirus, the city government was able to check the records of personal information left by patrons when they entered the facility.

Importantly, it is not difficult for businesses to scan IDs. All they need to do is download a custom scanner app with which to upload visitors' data to the city government's cloud-based database.

Regarding privacy concerns, Huang emphasized that the pandemic dashboard only displays de-identified data. In addition, only government-approved personnel can fetch the partial data needed to identify those who have come into close contact with a confirmed case.

"We will all be ready when it comes"

Smart technology and devices have been in use in Taipei long before the pandemic struck, and they have become an essential part of the city's response to COVID 19. For example, a cloud-based distance education platform that was launched four years ago offers a flexible way for students of all levels to learn, undergoing updates and expanding through partnerships with the country’s best teachers.

To promote digital change and leverage the platform, budgets have been increased over the years to give students at Taipei’s elementary and junior-high schools a partially subsidized tablet, while every classroom has a large touch-panel TV that enables remote teaching and learning.

Originally devised to serve students with special needs from afar, today Taipei CooC-Cloud can help those quarantining at home if a school is closed temporarily or in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. For underprivileged students who might not have an internet connection at home, free SIM cards are available on request.

"Starting last year, we expanded access to the platform for students living in 13 Taiwanese cities," Huang said. "We will all be ready when it comes, and today our partnered cities can use this tool."

Smart innovations for real problems

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) pointed out earlier this week that the nation’s cities should leverage information and communications technology to tackle the challenges of governance. Meanwhile, he said both the public and private sectors should work together to push ahead with smart city renewal in the post-COVID-19 era.

The city began focusing on digitalization and smart city development when the doctor-turned-politician took the helm in 2014. In 2019, Ko's team founded the Global Organization of Smart Cities (GO Smart) to advance the use of smart city technologies around the globe.

In August, both Mayor Ko and Deputy Mayor Huang took part in the Mayors' Summit. During the videoconference, they met with 20 mayors and representatives from 17 countries to discuss how smart initiatives can minimize disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Huang told Taiwan News that while thousands of smart innovations are created every year, only a few can really address societal needs and challenges.

"Many startups are dedicated to innovation and need a place to carry out their innovative ideas,” Huang remarked. “The city is open to new ideas and offers assistance and advice to help turn these technologies into lucrative businesses, hoping they will become tomorrow's unicorns."

The city government is also dedicated to integrating a variety of smart technologies into the city government-backed contactless EasyCard, which initially provided passengers with an additional payment when taking the Taipei MRT or bus. Starting in 2009, residents could also use the card with YouBike, the city's public bicycle sharing system.

The mayor then expanded EasyCard services to cover parking fees, utility bills, grocery shopping, WeMo e-scooters rentals, Taoyuan Airport MRT, and the Taiwan High Speed Rail — greatly simplifying daily life.

Huang also talked about the smart technologies that are currently underway, including "iTrash," which makes recycling rewarding by refunding cash to the EasyCard; the "Smart Traffic Light," which utilizes big data to optimize traffic signal timing at intersections; and "Smart Parking," which allows drivers to quickly find roadside public parking spaces.

"There are lots of other smart technologies in progress, many created by startup companies. We collaborate to unlock infinite possibilities for the future of the city, the tech startups themselves, and the country's next generation," Huang commented.