How Estonia nurtures a national digital identity
Tallinn, Estonia
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How Estonia nurtures a national digital identity

Rae Ritchie — August 2019

Since its emergence as an independent nation in the 1990s, Estonia has led the world in national digitalization programs. Marten Kaevats, the country’s lead digital advisor, tells I-CIO about the technologies that continue to drive Estonia’s goal to be the foremost e-state.

The birthplace of industry-redefining apps such as Skype and TransferWise. A country where 7% of GDP is generated by a technology base of 3,700 firms and where 4% of the workforce is employed in start-ups — four of which were declared ‘unicorns’ (valued at more than $1 billion) in 2018.

Estonia may be nine times smaller than California and have a fifth the population of Singapore, but the Baltic state of Estonia continues to outshine many more renowned tech hotspots, earning the accolades of “The most advanced digital society in the world” (Wired) and “The world’s most tech-savvy government” (The Atlantic).

 

Terence Stacey-nestle

One leading figure behind that rise, Marten Kaevats, has been the national digital advisor on the information society and innovation to the Government Office of Estonia for the past four years. An urban architect turned system architect, he now paints his role as “an in-house visionary looking at the whole landscape of technology.” That gives Kaevats a helicopter view of the primary drivers behind Estonia’s relentless pursuit of opportunities to advance the country through digital, the barriers it encounters and, ultimately, its vision for the digital societies of the future.

Catalyst of independence

The spark for digital Estonia was lit on August 20, 1991 when Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union. The new government then found itself in the unusual position of having to construct a new nation — including a civil service and bureaucracy — from scratch. As Kaevats explains: “We were a poor country back in the 1990s so the incentive was there to build the whole public sector really efficiently.”

Digital systems were seen as the only conceivable route to achieving that, particularly in a country with a strong educational heritage in math and computer science. Its capital, Tallinn, for example, had been home to the Soviet Union’s first Institute for Cybernetics since 1960.   

“From the very beginning, the government took a leadership position.”

Encouragement to aggressively apply digital technologies also came from its neighbors, particularly Sweden and Finland, which have strong historical ties to Estonia. An undersea cable connecting the country to Helsinki was laid in the 1990s, for instance, providing early internet access, with Estonia following the Scandinavian countries by adopting emerging messaging technologies such as email in preference to fax.    

Leading public figures made a big difference too. “From the very beginning, the government took a leadership position,” says Kaevats. During his time as Minister for Foreign Affairs, for example, self-confessed tech geek and later Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves pushed an initiative to install computers in every school. Indeed, by 1999 all schools were online.    


Kaevats believes that the age of many Estonian politicians — then and now — has been impactful. “We have a culture of young politicians. The first prime minister in 1991 was 33,” he explains. “Whereas in many other countries, you have older guys who have actually never used a computer and do not understand the implications of these types of technologies. It’s difficult to change anything if people don’t get that.”
Leading the way

This commitment to digital, once driven by necessity, has become the norm in Estonia. “We haven’t used any paper documents in the public sector for 10 years,” says Kaevats. “We can do everything online except [a few aspects of] getting married or buying and selling real estate.”

To demonstrate how widespread and fundamental digitalization is across Estonia, he points to how government operates. “From 2000, the government became the first in the world to hold meetings [supported by] digital tech. What that has allowed us to do is reduce the length of meetings. Previously, government meetings lasted on average five hours, during which around 50 to 60 matters of state were decided. Last year, the average was 15 minutes. The shortest was in August, when we had a 22-second government meeting during which 50 decisions were made.

“This is achieved because there is a digital system in the background that allows everyone to see the latest document and uses the principle that if there are no objections, items can pass rapidly.”

Services run by the government operate with similar pace and efficiency. “I’ve probably spent less than 15 minutes declaring taxes over my whole life,” estimates Kaevats. “In Estonia, the average is three minutes per year. This time, I did [my tax return] in 18 seconds.


“Most governments and countries lack a plan and only provide digital services.”

The effects of widespread digitalization are enormous.


According to Kaevats, in 2018 alone the X-Road system that links public and many private databases throughout the country saved about 2,400 person years. Furthermore, he says: “When you have digitalized everything, then the mindset starts to change as well.” He contrasts this with the situation in California: “You have the Googles and Facebooks doing cutting edge everything, but to deal with some government departments, you still need to have a paper utility bill to prove who you are, which is absurd.

Most governments and countries lack a plan and only provide digital services. As the only place where digitalization comes in contact with the end user, the digitalization of those services is important. But it’s important to go beyond those.


“The biggest challenge for other countries is to change the mindset to all-digital. We achieved the elimination of paper in government, for example, in more or less 15 years. It’s a big change that starts with bureaucratic apparatus but also involves society.”

Achieving this level of digitalization is only possible because of trust. “It’s all about building trust,” argues Kaevats. “This is an everyday practice. In technical terms,” he continues, “You can build information systems that basically promote trust and give citizens the opportunity to trust their government more.

“The first stage is to build general awareness so people know what can be done with their data. The second is actual control and management of the data systems. That’s why building centralized information systems is not a good idea because in today’s world it’s not a question of if, but when, this information will be compromised. If you spread it around, if something small happens it can be more easily managed.”

This is the principle behind X-Road, which provides the backbone to digitalization in Estonia. “The system allows data sharing across different authorities in a secure and private way over the open internet. However, with X-Road, the point is that you should not put all your eggs in one basket. Instead, spread it around, so if one of those baskets falls or there’s a cyber-attack, nothing really gets lost.

“The personal profile information of every citizen is currently in 651 different nodes and those nodes are all technologically different. So for a bad guy to attack the system, they need to attack all of them within microseconds. That’s relatively impossible to do.” 
Towards an ethical future

An issue currently facing governments around the world, including in Estonia, is how to handle the application of fast-advancing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Kaevats initiated the Estonian AI policy established in early 2019 and he believes that it offers a third way for managing this disruptive technology.

“What we see globally are two core data governance structures,” says Kaevats. “We see the Chinese doing a centralized information system. We see the US, on the other hand with basically corporate control systems like Facebooks and Googles. Looking at those systems from a European point of view, they are not okay.

 

“We want to show that human-centric governance is actually possible.”

We are trying to provide an alternative model — an ecosystem that preserves human rights in the digital space.” Estonia is working closely with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association, which is compiling a set of AI ethics standards for building services.  


“We are trying to be the first country to put AI ethics into a legal context, meaning that all AI systems must be ethical. Together, this will provide concrete guidanceWe want to show that human-centric governance is actually possible, including human rights in the digital space. You can build an ecosystem where every citizen is the owner of their data and in control of it. We want to show that this kind of model can work in all different domains: economy, society, government, democracy.”

  Marten Kaevats was a keynote speaker at Fujitsu World Tour 2019 in Helsinki.

First published August 2019
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