Estonian government Chief Information Officer (CIO) Siim Sikkut was a guest speaker at «Diplomacy in the Digital Age», a new ZHAW continuing education course, on 5 February 2021. He explained how Estonia has become one of Europe’s digital leaders and talked about the challenges still lying ahead for the Baltic state.
As Switzerland prepares to vote on implementing an electronic identity (e-ID) on 7 March, the continuing education course Diplomacy in the Digital Age looked at Estonia, similar in size to Switzerland, but with only 1.3 million inhabitants. Since its independence in 1991, Estonia has been proactive in making use of new digital tools by offering a wide range of public services online. For example, the country introduced i-Voting as early as 2005, and today, half of all votes are cast online.
Estonia developed its digital strategy both to gain more efficiency and to save money. Whereas individuals still have a paper option, companies must run completely online, from registration to e-Taxation, thus increasing the ease of doing business. The country created e-Residency, which allows foreign citizens and SMEs to benefit from Estonian e-services. Today, more e-Residencies are issued per day than births.
In 2001, Estonia created X-Road, a software-based solution which ensures interoperability between different organizations and information systems – in both the public and the private sectors – enabling them to work in harmony and providing a secure environment. This solution has also been implemented in Finland, Kyrgyzstan, Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Japan.
However, such a system can also be the target of cyberattacks. In 2007, Estonia faced the first and, so far, largest cyberattack against a nation. As a result, the government developed a contingency plan. It set up a so-called data embassy, i.e., a digital backup is hosted abroad – currently in Luxembourg – so that public services could continue should an attack prevent the country from accessing its data.
A National AI Strategy
The use of artificial intelligence also enables the government to reach a new level of efficiency. For example, machine learning helps with the transcription of court records whereas satellite images can be used to identify lands to inspect or to detect grassland mowing events for agricultural subsidy checks.
In July 2019, Estonia adopted its national AI strategy – #KrattAI – which aims to boost the use of AI in both the private and the public sectors, as well as in the wider economy. Moreover, #KrattAI can improve digital public services by creating the best possible user experience.
Estonia is constantly experimenting to go further. As Siim Sikkut summarized it: “It’s not about money, it’s not about tech, it’s about change.”