A few days ago, I was invited to deliver a lecture at a symposium on the rule of law, land and trade at the University of Hong Kong.
The topic was the evolution of Taiwan’s land system, how to implement the rule of law and property rights and how to promote market transactions.
While there are many aspects of Taiwan’s land system that China could learn from, a look at the US also shows that there is room for improvement in the Taiwanese system and how it is handled by government agencies.
One example is the transparency of government data.
Taiwanese government agencies regularly produce descriptive statistical reports by year and administrative area, which should be applauded. However, there are no explanations as to how the data can be useful to government policy implementation and academic research.
Due to my area of research, I see thousands of similar reports, but 99 percent of the data does not provide sufficient information.
Each individual and each researcher will, of course, be concerned with different aspects, and government agencies cannot create tens of thousands of descriptive statistical reports. However, there is a very simple solution to this problem — make the raw data public.
Taiwan’s actual real-estate transaction prices seem to be the only raw government data made available to the public in a systematized way.
If the government did not use this approach, and instead only announced monthly average housing transaction prices and average land areas per region, it would have a negative effect on the goal of keeping a lid on housing prices and preventing a housing bubble from forming.
Fortunately, the authorities are releasing data so that real-estate brokers, researchers, developers and others can obtain the data they need.
This is not a new innovation.
New York City has been issuing data concerning real-estate transactions on the city government’s Web site for more than a decade, including prices, sellers, buyers and sizes.
New York’s system is more advanced than Taiwan’s. In Taiwan, to obtain the data you must make an application and pay a fee to obtain a data CD, while in New York, Excel spreadsheets are posted on the Internet where anyone can download them.
At the time when Taiwan’s real-estate transactions system was implemented, other government agencies were hard at work producing descriptive statistical reports used by a limited number of people.
Why? Publishing raw data will not only save the government time and money, it will also give all potential users access to more information.
Someone might say that making information public will violate the privacy of individuals, but reconciling transparency and privacy would not be difficult.
The removal of each party’s name and other information to identify them in accordance with the Personal Information Protection Act (個人資料保護法) could easily be achieved with software to automate the removal.
Raw government data with all names and ID numbers removed would still be of greater benefit than one-dimensional descriptive statistical reports.
Making public the government information after removing privacy data will promote democracy and accountability.
If Taiwan, just like China, did not make all court decisions public, how would non-governmental legal reformers be able to monitor the quality of judicial decisionmaking?
Making raw data available would allow civic society to help catch the small number of bad apples in government agencies and highlight policy loopholes. On top of this, it would not cost the government a single cent. Some US researchers rely on government raw data to reveal partisan policy.
As government agencies continue to expand and as data can be obtained for next to nothing, relying on the traditional government model, in which the higher levels monitor subordinate levels, is no longer sufficient.
Allowing the public to monitor the government with the help of this information is the way to further improve Taiwanese democracy and the rule of law.
Chang Yun-chien is an associate research professor in the Institutum Iurisprudentiae at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Perry Svensson