Civics in the Post-truth Era—A Statistical Look at Taiwan

Re-lab is presenting information visually to make data and content more access­ible to the public. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Re-lab is presenting information visually to make data and content more access­ible to the public. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

We are living in a “post-truth” era. In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In recent years, the words and ideas of leading figures in political or social movements have drawn more public attention than the social issues themselves. To get to the truth, modern citizens should cultivate the ability to find factual evidence in complex data and information.


In Taiwan, a firm named Re-lab is presenting information visually to make data and content more access­ible to the public, providing citizens with the means to understand and discuss all sides of the issues, and so bringing them closer to the truth.

Spotting the cognitive gaps

Re-lab, Taiwan’s first “visualized information” company, was founded in 2011 by six college students. The team handles a wide variety of projects with a need for visualized information, from publicizing startup teams, training corporate personnel, and boosting corporate images to promoting social issues.

Looking back on what spurred her to join Re-lab, cofounder Liu Yu Hsuan says, “I’m interested in communication!” All communication needs to be built on a cornerstone of facts, and the team’s task is to “let the facts speak.”

In Taipei’s 2014 mayoral election, Re-lab collaborated with News Lens International to launch an interactive online game, “Mayoral Candidates, Give Us a Peek at Your Policies.” The game presented candidates’ views as multiple-choice options without revealing which policies belonged to which candidates, enabling citizens to choose the stances closest to their own. The system then analyzed which candidate’s policies were closest to those of the public on various issues.

The game shocked many netizens when they found that the candidates they supported did not necessarily hold the same political views as their own. This cognitive gap not only reflected the fact that voters overlook candidate’s positions on issues but also broke through citizens’ blind spots in discussions of municipal policies. After the game ended, more than 70% of the players continued to read in-depth reports on News Lens International and joined discussion forums to familiarize themselves with various aspects of interrelated issues.

100 Graphs About Taiwan

In addition to taking on paid work, Re-lab also enjoys transforming different types of “user-­unfriendly” information—inaccessible or hard-­to-­decipher data—allowing citizens to rethink the relationship between people and information. Hence, the company set up Redesign Info Laboratory on Facebook in 2018, sharing various kinds of visualized information.

The lab discovered that the Dir­ect­or­ate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics’ National Statistical Bulletin contained data on many social issues but these data were not attractively presented and were little known to the public. The late Swedish public health scholar Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness and his many TED Talks, such as “How not to be ignorant about the world,” used data to present the world as it actually is. This inspired Re-lab team member Wu Tsung Mao to reference how Taiwanese data has changed over time with regard to the issues listed in Rosling’s book, to identify areas in which Taiwan is progressing and ­areas where more attention is needed.

The Re-lab team subsequently collected 100 sets of Taiwan data, showing trends on various issues over the past 20 years, and published the information in a book entitled 100 Graphs About Taiwan.

The book’s graphic design uses a stark black and white contrast. The white first half of the volume represents 50 instances in which Taiwan is progressing, and the black second half represents 50 worrisome areas. However, Wu Tsung Mao cautions, “It’s not a simple case of things going well or badly.” The data presented in the book show only trends, and each issue has many aspects that merit discussion. Hence, the team has also written guides to each issue, calling readers’ attention to what lies behind the data.

For example, AIDS diagnoses have risen overall in the past 20 years but have trended downward in the last two years. However, the rising numbers don’t mean that more and more Taiwanese are contracting AIDS, but that the number of formerly uncounted sufferers has come to light as awareness of screening increases. When considering this issue, rather than merely worrying, readers can consider ways in which Taiwan can raise awareness of HIV screening, allowing those infected to receive treatment as soon as possible, thereby reducing the risk of infection and promoting a positive cycle.

The limitations of statistics

Collecting comprehensive data on 100 topics from the past 20 years was a daunting task. When asked what was required, Re-lab’s Liu Yu Hsuan smiles and says, “MS Excel and perseverance!”

Government data is spread out among different agencies. Items have to be downloaded one at a time, and sometimes Re-lab has to sleuth out data to fill in the puzzle. Liu Yu Hsuan recalls the team found that cases of child abuse fell significantly in 2017, but the data didn’t divulge a clear reason for the reduction. Only after contacting a doctor did the team learn that since 2017, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has disclosed only the number of “at home” cases of child and adolescent abuse. As the scope of statistics changes, so do the numbers.

Another headache for Re-lab is apparent contradictions within the data. For example, Ministry of Education statistics show that the number of cram schools in Taiwan has increased year by year. However, researchers pointed out that cram schools have shrunk in size recently, so the numbers of students attending them may not necessarily have increased. After consulting with experts, Re-lab first identifies limitations in the data and then searches for missing information to complete the picture.

Re-lab understands that data is contextual; it’s impossible to make objective inferences without seeing the big picture. Therefore, 100 Graphs About Taiwan reminds readers to pay attention to factors that influence the data—such as redefinitions, and margins of error within statistical methods and calculations—when inter­pret­ing information.

Change begins with caring

When asked whether compiling 100 Graphs About Taiwan had increased their sensitivity to data in the news, Wu and Liu laughingly replied, “We don’t watch the news much nowadays.”

Once a media industry intern, Wu has a keen interest in data presented in news reports, and often checks online data to confirm the reports’ accuracy. He found that most media cherry-pick data to confirm their ­biases, manufacturing topics such as working hours in Taiwan.

Reports often state that among OECD countries, Taiwan ranks fourth in average annual working hours per employee, higher than Japan and South Korea. However, these findings neglect the proportion of the workforce occupied by part-time employees—the higher the numbers of part-time workers, the lower the average of annual working hours. In 2017, for example, the proportion of part-time employees in Taiwan accounted for only 3.3% of the total, compared with 22.4% in Japan and 11.4% in South Korea. This difference vastly increased Taiwan’s average annual working hours.

Even though the book debunks many Taiwanese people’s stereo­typical views of society, Liu Yu Hsuan says that Re-lab’s immediate goal is not to correct biases but to initiate long-term social dialogue. When they see how the data has changed over the past 20 years and understand how issues develop, citizens can begin to reflect, care, and communicate; that’s what’s needed most in this era. “People today engage with issues for only a short time, and the level of understanding is very shallow,” Liu says. If Taiwan is to progress, she believes, different sectors need to join in and together gradually grow.