A look into Estonia’s digital society

Source: Creative Commons

How did Estonia, with a population of just 1.3 million, establish itself as one of the most advanced digital societies in the world?

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country had to find a low-cost solution for providing public services for its citizens. Without much legacy administrative and computerised systems to hold them back, Estonia successfully developed numerous e-government services - digital signatures, online tax filing, paperless cabinet meetings and internet voting systems.

As early as 2002, free public wi-fi was provided by the government in populated areas, and by 2007, 94% of tax returns were filed electronically.

“E-governance is not a technical innovation. The services connecting people and businesses via the e-signature and e-contracting model, sometimes are; but more often these, too, are no cutting edge innovation. What is, is the societal change. My role is to try and help people around the world to recognise and understand this, in order to help them gain from the outbound services Estonia offers to the whole world,” said Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia.

We take a look at some of Estonia’s most successful digital initiatives:

Estonia made headlines by pioneering the idea of “Country-as-a-Service”, offering its suite of digital services to entrepreneurs across the world. e-Residency is a transnational digital identity available to anyone in the world. It offers digital nomads the ease of running a business in a digital and transparent environment, independent of geographical location. E-residents can set up a company online within a day, digitally sign documents and contracts, encrypt and transmit documents securely and administer the company from anywhere in the world.  All of these digital services have been available to Estonians for over a decade. Over 13,000 e-residency cards have been issued to date.

Electronic ID Card
Each Estonian citizen carries a national ID smart card which provides access to over 1,000 public services. The chip on the card carries embedded files which, using 2048-bit public key encryption, enable it to be used as definitive proof of ID in an electronic environment. The ID card can be used for numerous purposes – digital signatures, accessing government databases, electronic voting, pre-paid transport and logging into bank accounts.

Digital Signature
Estonia's digital signature system has paved the way for its numerous e-services, from i-voting systems to electronic tax filing. The system is freely used by businesses as well, and have been applied to a variety of web-based services. More than 242 million digital signatures have been made since the system became available. Its success is due to two crucial developments - In 2000, Estonia’s parliament passed a law giving electronic signatures the same legal weight as traditional paper signatures. Secondly, the nation's electronic ID infrastructure created an effective and universal system for secure identification.

X-Road Data Exchange
The backbone of e-Estonia, X-Road is the data exchange layer that connects the nation’s various services and databases, both in the public and private sector. Estonia opted for an open, inexpensive and decentralized system – existing components can be linked up regardless of platform, new services can be added as they are ready, and every government agency or business can choose a system that is best suited for them. 

All outgoing data is digitally signed and encrypted, and all incoming data is authenticated and logged. X-Road enables a range of complex services for citizens, such as checking one’s personal data from national databases and declaring taxes electronically. Over 2,000 services and 900 organizations make use of X-Road daily in Estonia.

Estonia’s Internet voting system allows voters to login using an ID card, and cast their ballots from any internet-connected computer, anywhere in the world. Voters can change their vote as many times as they want during the voting period. The voter's identity is removed from the ballot before it reaches the National Electoral Commission for counting, thereby ensuring anonymity. 

In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to hold nation-wide elections using this method, and in 2007, the first country to use i-voting in parliamentary elections. The cumulative time savings in the Estonian parliamentary elections of 2011 were 11,000 working days, or 504,000 euros in average wages. In the 2015 Parliamentary Elections, Internet voting accounted for 30.5 percent of the votes cast. Estonians worldwide cast their votes from 116 different countries.

e-Cabinet is used by the government to streamline the decision-making process, allowing ministers to prepare for cabinet meetings, conduct them and review minutes, entirely without paper. Relevant information is organized and updated in real time, giving ministers a clear overview of each item under discussion. Before each weekly cabinet session, ministers access the system to review each agenda item and determine one’s own position, indicating if they have any objections or would like to speak on the topic. This way, the ministers' positions are known beforehand, and decisions that have no objections are adopted without debate, saving considerable time. 

With the e-Cabinet system, the average length of weekly cabinet meetings was cut from 4 to 5 hours to just 30 to 90 minutes. The government also eliminated the need to print and deliver thousands of pages of documents each week – a significant reduction in environmental impact and cost. 

e-School is a platform for education stakeholders to collaborate and organize teaching and learning information. Teachers enter grades and attendance information in the system, post homework assignments and evaluate students’ behavior. Parents use it to stay closely involved in their children's education, with online access to children's homework assignments, grades, attendance information and teacher's notes. Students can read their own grades and keep track of what homework has been assigned each day. District administrators have access the latest statistical reports on demand, making it easy to consolidate data across the district’s schools.  Over 85 percent of Estonia's schools use e-School, covering about 95 percent of all grade school students.

Estonia’s nationwide Electronic Health Record system integrates data from different healthcare providers to a create a common record for each patient. It retrieves data as needed from the various providers, who may be using different systems, and presents it in a standard format. Health records are secured using blockchain technology, to protect against fraud. 

Doctors can access a patient’s records from a single electronic file, read test results and x-ray scans as soon as they are ready, and prescribe medication to patients electronically. The system also compiles data for national statistics to measure health trends, track epidemics and ensure that health resources are being spent wisely.