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Estonia’s new dreams for e-government

01/07/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

Interview: Martin Kavaets, national digital adviser to the Government of Estonia, shares its thinking on citizen control of data, micro service architecture and ethical AI

Marten Kaevats

Martin Kaevats describes himself as a “professional dreamer” for the Government of Estonia. Its national digital adviser has ambitious thoughts about harnessing new technology, some as firm plans for the next year or two, others as ideas for the next five to 10 years.

He’s even willing to place a number on one of those dreams.

“I think we can automate 85% of the bureaucracy in government within the next six years,” he says. “We can automate all types of public services.

“For example, by the end of this year when a baby is born both parents will receive a message saying congratulations and that they will get this much money from government and the municipality on a particular date, everything is taken care of with kindergarten and if you want you can change the name of the baby. The point is that if you are entitled to anything from government you get it automatically without applying.”

Speaking with UKAuthority at the Public Sector Solutions Expo, where he has shared a presentation with Fujitsu Services, Kaevats conveys Estonia’s intent on breaking new ground with digital and data for public services.

It has a reputation as a world leader going back to the early 2000s: 99% of its state services are online and it is consistently near the top of international e-government rankings. But he says it is aiming higher.

Information ambition

“Since 2000 we have built a whole society in which every citizen is the owner of their own information, and from next year they will have control of that information.”

The backbone of this has been in place since 2001, with the digital identity for each citizen and the X-Road data exchange platform developed with the government of Finland. This works as a distributed model in which one organisation can only check the relevant details for a process against those on another database, and on the ‘once only’ principle in which a citizen has to provide part of their personal profile just once for all of government.

In addition, the information is all encrypted and sent over the internet, and if any of the nodes is hit by a cyber attack it can be quickly quarantined as a security measure.

This was strengthened in 2012 with the backing up of all government information in a blockchain, which makes transactions auditable and enables citizens to see who has accessed their information and why.

The next step will begin with a pilot later this year for healthcare records and hopefully extend more widely next year. It will enable users to log in to their personal profiles – using their identity card, mobile ID or app based digital ID – and attach certificates specifying who can see particular types of information.

This could apply to specific public services, but also could flag up information that could be used to provide a better service. Kaevats cites the possibility of someone notifying the system that they are vegan so any organisation can take it into account if they are providing meals during an event or journey.

Tokens for mandate

“People can control information through power of attorney,” he says. “Every piece of data has a token that provides the mandate for how it can be used. And with blockchain you always have auditability so can go to the nitty gritty.

“Also, if for any reason at any time you decide you don’t want to make it available you can pull it back.

“People in Estonia do not yet have a good understanding of this, but in a small society the level of trust is higher as everybody knows everybody. We have the potential to see who has been looking at data when and why, but not many people check it as they trust the system.

“But I think it is important to people to have an option and it is our government’s job to make it user-friendly.”

Estonia has also taken a lead in developing AI applications for government services. This includes its cyber security index for supporting X-Road, which spots any unusual patterns in activity and raises a red flag for the cyber experts to check it out.

Another is the development of profiles for people using its unemployment service, which helps to direct them to jobs that are expected to be a good fit. Kaevats says that before it was adopted the proportion of people going into jobs in which they remained for at least six months was just 45%, but now it is up to 74%.

AI and grass mowing

The country also has a service that combines AI with satellite imagery to identify whether farmers have been mowing grass in their fields in line with regulations to obtain EU financial support. If it shows they are not mowing they will receive a message reminding them and the inspector will pay a visit, but it also saves inspectors a lot of effort. The development cost amounted to €100,000 and in the first year it saved an estimated €750,000 in better use of inspectors’ time.

Now Estonia is aiming to develop more AI applications while establishing a set of ethical standards to underpin their use, and is working with the international technical organisation IEEE to produce standards that others could adopt.

“We want to build this ethical AI for Estonia” Kaevats says. “It’s not the government’s data. As people get to appreciate that they have control it can completely reshape how they cooperate with government and other institutions.”

Estonia’s Government Office is also working on what he describes as a “micro service architecture”, in which future digital services will be developed on small modules and rely less on in-depth coding skills. It is collaborating with the Finnish government on a system architecture to enable this, and while it is some way off there is a target to ensure no individual procurement will exceed €150,000.

There is a strong international dimension to the two countries’ collaboration. One manifestation is a plan to make health records available across their borders, reflecting the movement of people between the two.

Nordic co-operation

It has also taken the form of the Nordic Institute of Interoperability Solutions, a co-operation platform focused on the further development of X-Road and other cross-border components of e-government infrastructure. Kavevats says it has already been used by other countries including Iceland, Colombia, Mexico and Israel and that it is open for others to join.

This reflects Estonia’s confidence that, despite being a small country with just 1.5 million people, it is a world leader in the field. Kaevats says it is doing plenty from which other countries can learn.

“In Estonia we are carrying out these types of experiments to show the world that people can control their data and this type of governance would work in any domain, such as the economy, social services or anything else.”

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