If you’ve ever made a video call on Skype, then you have Estonia to thank.
Skype’s software was created by three Estonian programmers, and just under half the company’s staff are based in the Estonian cities of Tallinn and Tartu.
And while Skype might be the most high-profile contribution to the digital economy, it is just one of the many ways the country is at the forefront of the global digital revolution.
Since the turn of the millennium, Estonia’s government has been converting much of its paperwork into easily accessible digital formats, including e-voting, digital tax returns and digital health files.
The Baltic nation is ranked as Europe’s top nation for digital public services by the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index.
“In Estonia, 100% of our citizens can access their health files and everybody can see who else has accessed their files,” Estonia’s Deputy Secretary General for E-services and Innovation, Ain Aaviksoo, told the 2017 European Business Summit in Brussels.
Aaviksoo said the key to the country’s ‘e-success’ – a third of people vote online and 98% of prescriptions are issued digitally – was that it introduced the e-services one by one over a long period of time, building trust with the public as they realised the e-services’ benefits: “It is important,” he said, “to build this trust gradually”.
Tax returns can be processed by the government rapidly because tax accounts and bank accounts are linked.
All services are accessed via a single ID card, which also acts as a digital signature enabling the online completion of all official documents.
Ten years ago the ID card was also made available on mobile phones. The Mobil-ID system is based on a SIM card that stores private keys and a mobile application used for authentication and signing.
Mobil-ID is just one example of Estonia’s open and non-prescriptive approach to how its digital public services are developed and delivered.
Government departments and public sector agencies are free to use whichever technology best suits them to deliver their e-solutions and the digitisation of their databases. All of these services are then all connected via the X-Road system.
Originally X-Road was a system used for making queries to the different databases. Now it has developed into a tool that can also write to multiple databases, transmit large data sets and perform searches across several databases.
The Estonian government is so convinced about the merits of its interconnected approach, that it has opened the system up to businesses around the world.
Anyone, anywhere, can register to become an e-Resident of Estonia and run the administration of their business through the Estonian system – even if that business never carries out a single transaction in Estonia itself.
The E-Residency programme makes it incredibly easy to start up an EU business, including the creation of local bank accounts, and gives a business access to the EU’s single market.
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the UK vote to leave the EU, Estonia is now targeting E-Residency at British businesses with its site howtostayin.eu.
In July 2017, Estonia takes the presidency of the EU Council for six months. Unsurprisingly, one of the main points of focus during its presidency will be on a digital Europe and the free movement of data.
Specifically, it will focus on three key areas:
- developing cross-border e-commerce and e-services for the benefit of consumers, producers and businesses
- ensuring modern and secure electronic communications available everywhere across Europe as well as creating a favourable environment for new innovative services
- advancing cross-border digital public services to facilitate everyday life
Ain Aaviksoo says that while he understands that concerns over privacy and security might mean some resistance to cross-border sharing of data, an adoption of Estonia’s gradual approach of building trust over time could help win over opponents and help grow a truly Europe-wide digital market.