Tech experts helped make Taiwan's mask rationing system a success

02/28/2020 09:40 PM

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter

When Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) announced on Feb. 3 that the Taiwan government would start a rationing system to cope with a face mask shortage caused by coronavirus fears, the relevant government agencies had only 60 hours to prepare.

They had to come up with a system that would work swiftly, effectively and equitably, allowing each buyer to purchase the allowed two masks per week.

"To be frank, were it not for the infrastructure upgrades and data management experience accumulated over the years in Taiwan, it would have been very difficult for the National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) to roll out the mask rationing system so quickly," Chang Lin-chih (張齡芝), chief of the NHIA's Information Management Division, told CNA in an interview recently.

Under the rationing system that began Feb. 6, anyone can buy disposable surgical masks on Sundays at designated drugstores and pharmacies, once they present their National Health Insurance (NHI) cards, while on the other days of the week, sales are staggered based on the last digit of the ID number on the buyer's NHI card.

By digitally scanning the NHI card, pharmacies can quickly see the customer's mask purchasing history, which ensures that the quota of two masks per week per person is being maintained.

Getting ready

Designing a system, based on ID card numbers, to prevent congestion at stores was the easy part, Chang said.

The challenge was ensuring that the NHIA's cloud computing system could handle the additional load during peak sales periods, she said, adding that they had to prepare for a scenario similar to a mad rush for online concert tickets.

In one day, the NHIA team of engineers set up 20 servers the size of refrigerators to help carry the load, boosting the total number at the NHIA to 32, Chang said.

The engineers then had to make sure that the mask sales would not compromise the main function of the NHIA's PharmaCloud System, which is to store medical records and allow health care institutions smooth access to them, she said.

The Pharmacloud system, introduced in 2013, was an important reason why the mask rationing system was able to be put in place.

It was first developed to decentralize health care, according to NHIA Director-General Lee Po-chang (李伯璋), but to do that the speed of the visual private network (VPN) between the cloud system and medical institutions had to be upgraded, including by changing to a faster fiber-optic network.

Thanks to those upgrades, the NHIA is equipped with strong cloud computing capabilities, making it possible for NHI-contracted pharmacies across the country to track the purchasing history of people buying masks under the rationing system, Chang said.

NHIA Director-General Lee Po-chang
NHIA Director-General Lee Po-chang

"The more information people have, the less likely they are to panic about the epidemic," Wu said.

Civic involvement

As the sales began, long lines could be seen outside most NHI- contracted pharmacies, and people were being turned away when supplies ran out. Attention focused then on providing better and more accurate information to the public about where supplies were available throughout the day.

Building on information provided by the government, several private citizens with IT skills set about creating application programming interfaces (APIs) that would show data on pharmacy locations and mask supplies.

Howard Wu (吳展瑋), one of the first engineers to develop a relevant API even before the government's rationing program was launched, said its purpose was to provide information on mask stocks at convenience stores, where they were being sold primarily at the time.

Wu said his API was a hit but it was not perfect since the information was based on feedback from the public, which could be inaccurate or late.

However, when Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳), who is responsible for digital technology, released NHI data about pharmacy locations, Wu was able to upgrade his API, using Google Maps to show the locations of pharmacies and whether they had mask stocks.

Wu said his upgraded API received 830,000 hits the first day it was launched.

Since then, other IT experts have created about 80 APIs, including LINE chatbots, maps and voice assistants, related to the supply of masks and the location of pharmacies, he said.

"The more information people have, the less likely they are to panic about the epidemic," Wu said.

The collaborative efforts between the government and civic society on the mask rationing program are a model that could be used in future endeavors, he said.

"I think this is a huge step for the government and the IT community," as they have developed a sense of confidence in teamwork between them, based on their respective areas of expertise, Wu said.

A real-time "mask map" developed by Howard Wu
A real-time "mask map" developed by Howard Wu's Goodideas-Studio that informs the public about mask availability
People lining up outside a pharmacy in New Taipei to purchase face masks on the first day of the rationing system.
People lining up outside a pharmacy in New Taipei to purchase face masks on the first day of the rationing system.
A pharmacist (right) hands a woman her two masks after swiping her NHI card.
A pharmacist (right) hands a woman her two masks after swiping her NHI card.

"The workload is heavy, but I think we have a responsibility to do it," Su said.

Practical logistics

In addition to the design of digital systems to handle the mask sales, the logistics of the supply of the product on the ground also required some quick and resourceful planning.

The state owned Chunghwa Post Co. was charged with delivering 3.96 million masks per day from 24 factories to the 6,515 NHI-contracted pharmacies across the country.

"For the first time, Chunghwa Post is participating in a disease control effort," said Chen Ching-hsiang (陳敬祥), director of the company's Business and Operations Department.

At the pharmacies, meanwhile, the staff had to prepare to deal with an additional workload on a daily basis.

Su Hsiu-jung (蘇秀蓉), who runs Shang-i Pharmacy in Taipei, said she has to put in two extra hours of work each day before opening time to package the allocated 250 masks per day so that she can easily sell them two at a time to her customers.

"The workload is heavy, but I think we have a responsibility to do it," she said.

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