Innovation for Democracy Café
Disfactory Project: How to Detect Illegal Factories by Open Source Technology and Crowdsourcing
When thinking of the countryside in our mind, we probably picture endless rice paddies. But in western Taiwan, the landscape is quite different. Thousands of iron-sheet factories occupy our farmland, and they emit unbearable smells, release all kinds of pollutants, dump wastes, and pose serious risks to our environment. Moreover, unlike legal factories, illegal factories simply don't follow regular fire prevention measures and regulations and thus lack facilities to prevent and put out fire, thereby causing frequent accidents and damage to the nearby areas.
Despite all of these consequences, building illegal factories on farmlands is still a profitable business, because the factory owners thus obtain the means of production at a lower price and can easily get away with penalties by simply ignoring their legal responsibility. Such conduct simply shifts the cost of production onto the environment in an irresponsible way. As we can imagine, such violations has been increasing year by year. On average, Taiwan loses 1,500 hectares of farmland each year due to illegal use, which demonstrates that illegal factories are an ongoing and escalating problem that people cannot ignore.
Disfactory Project: A Solution Co-created With Civic Tech Communities
It’s clearly that the problem of illegal factories are caused by dysfunction of the previous land management regulations. In response to that, Citizens of Earth Taiwan (CET) started seeking solutions to tackle the illegal factories. CET soon realized that the biggest obstacle they faced was that no one saw the violations as a big deal. Local governments avoided standing on the opposite side of the illegal factories. For local governments, imposing penalties is an arduous and thankless task.
What about asking people to report these illegal factories? If people ever try, they'll find that the official reporting process takes a long time, and sometimes the report just vanishes without being followed up. Also, the process requires whistle blowers to provide their personal IDs, which puts them at risk of leaking their personal information.
Considering all the shortcomings of the existing reporting mechanism, CET believes that only when the voice of the people can be assembled and amplified can they put significant pressure on the government to enforce the law, suspend electricity and water supply to those unregistered factories, and demolish such factories. This idea led CET to turn to the assistance of g0v-zero, an open source community in Taiwan. They helped catalyse the Disfactory project, which aims to collect massive crowd-sourced reports from citizens and publish the government's overall inspection progress. Through the collaboration of CET and g0v-zero, the Disfactory project combines the knowledge they have accumulated through advocacy and the diverse techniques brought by the passionate civic contributors. In 2020, the Disfactory project team delivered its first product: disfactory.tw. They built a website with geographic information that whistle blowers can operate on the ground by themselves. Through a few simple steps: identifying the location of the target illegal factory, taking a picture of it, uploading the photos, any citizen can easily register the information on Disfactory's website.
Once the information is added to the website, CET will sort the information from the back-end and then double-check the information to verify its authenticity by investigating whether the reported factories are obviously illegal and need to be reported to the government. Finally, CET will organize all the information reported by whistle blowers into a form meeting the government's requirements and send it to the government.
Collaborations and Communication Bring a Real Change
At first, local governments were reluctant to receive our reports, claiming that they did not have enough human resources to handle the amount of reports. CET then took up literally thousands of phone calls to every department in central and local government to sort out the problem and even to encourage people working in these government departments that they would be on the right track if they could actively deal with our report.
After numerous times of communication, the monitoring and auditing apparatuses of central and local government eventually took the report more seriously. Moreover, government officials and civil servants not only accepted the CET's complaints, but also took the initiative to examine the areas around the locations of those suspected illegal factories to see if there might be other violations.
From March 19, 2020 to December 1, 2022, there are 2,511 sites that have been reported by citizens as the place where suspected illegal factories were located. Out of 706 reports that CET has submitted to the government, 12 factories have been found to be illegal and have been demolished and the rest are still in the administrative process. According to statistics provided by the Council of Agriculture in 2022, the expansion area of newly built factories decreased by half for two consecutive years. These results demonstrate that the impact of crowdsourcing the work of detecting illegal factories to citizens is beyond imagination.
An Open Database as the Basis to Spark Innovation in Advocacy
The impact of the Disfactory project is not only made by removing many illegal factories but also by establishing an open and robust database of illegal factories that was co-created by the citizens. Every piece of record that every citizen uploaded has been finally accumulated as a rich set of environment data, and such data becomes the crucial element of the Disfactory’s database. Based on that database, CET is able to generate multiple advocacy strategies and go further on the path of advocacy. With a long-term goal of advocacy, impact, and capacity building, Project Disfactory team along with CET will continue to experiment new collaboration models of advocacy.
*This article is written by Ms. Peii Lai, Campaign Officer of Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan.
*The video of the 3rd episode of Innovation for Democracy Cafe can be watched here.
The 3rd I4D Café: How Can Technology Help Citizens to Hold Governments and Businesses Accountable?
In the third episode of Innovation for Democracy Café, Ms. Ya-wei Chou from FNF Global Innovation Hub discussed with two guest speakers about their experience in using technology to encourage citizens’ participation and collaboration on monitoring and examining governments and businesses: Mr. Thitiphong Luangaroonlerd, the CEO of Boonmee Lab in Thailand, and Ms. Peii Lai, Campaigner from Citizens of the Earth (CET) in Taiwan.