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Taiwan Wants Its Commuter Apps To Battle Pandemics

Illustration for article titled Taiwan Wants Its Commuter Apps To Battle Pandemics
Photo: Getty

As others have pointed out, Taiwan is something of a coronavirus “success story.” Despite being a stone’s throw from Mainland China, the island’s managed to keep the virus’s spread under wraps, and its body count low, and has been no stranger to spearheading new, (arguably invasive) tech to keep things that way.

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The latest idea being floated out, per a statement released today by the state’s Overseas Community Affairs Council (or OCAC), is turning a federal app originally intended for traffic navigation into one that can monitor potential disease hotspots. The “Freeway 1968" app, originally released by Taiwan’s Freeway Bureau as a way to guide frustrated commuters away from congested highways, could be retrofitted into a new tool to “restrict traffic and visitors” that might be pouring into populated scenic routes during Taiwan’s Labor Day weekend, which happens next month.

Per the statement, this idea came after officials noticed many Taiwanese folks weren’t abiding by social distancing guidelines during the annual Qing Ming Festival that happened roughly two weeks ago.

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The idea shouldn’t be surprising. As the coronavirus continues to rage on internationally, we’ve seen the idea of location-tracking through our phones evolve from pure evil into a somewhat necessary evil. Governments across the globe have increasingly turned onto the idea, with some nations mandating its citizens download location-tracking apps and even wearables in order to curb their urban sprawl, and hopefully the spread of the virus along with them.

What is surprising here is that Taiwan’s plans for its Freeway app—which has been around since 2017—is being retrofitted as a pandemic-fighting tool. As Taiwan’s Director General of Cyber Security, Howard Jyan, put it in the initial federal announcement, any “upgrades” and “improvements” to the app will allow the government to monitor not only the flow of traffic but the flow of people into Taiwan’s scenic areas—something that the app had never been able to do before:

A new function would be added to enable the app to conduct big data analysis and issue alerts when there are large numbers of travelers headed to specific travel destinations, Jyan said. The alerts would be graded by color from green to yellow to red, with red meaning that scenic areas are too crowded, he said.

A screenshot of Taiwan’s Freeway app in its current iteration.
A screenshot of Taiwan’s Freeway app in its current iteration.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

The flip from tracking commuters off-road as well as on is a subtle one, and the fact that Taiwanese officials are toying around with this idea less than a month before its supposed rollout shows that it can be done quickly.

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And it’s a tweak that could just as easily happen stateside. Here in the U.S., there’s a ton of apps meant to monitor the ways we travel on the road: GPS apps of all shapes and sizes, plenty of apps aimed at helping parents monitor their younger drivers, and of course, the deluge of apps aimed at saving you money on car insurance.

Although the auto-centric apps you have on your phone might not be pitching in its data to fight covid-19, there have been some companies dipping their toe into the idea. And because the majority of these sorts of auto-apps rely on geolocation pulled from our cellphones, there’s nothing to say that they can’t be used to track American’s off-road escapades as easily as Taiwan’s traffic busting app could track its own citizens.

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I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

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