In Estonia, 99% of public services are online

With just 1.3m people in the country, Estonia has made a big impression on the global stage which attracted the attention of world leaders, academics and venture capitalists through the high-tech initiatives

By SOON LI WEI / Pic By BERNAMA

“WHERE is Estonia? Is it in the Middle East?” a friend of mine asked when I told her I was going to the Baltic country.

The writer Li Wei (left) with a part of the foreign journalists from Zambia and Chile in front of the Tallinn University main building during the Summer School Programme organised by Baltic Film, Media and Communications School

She was not the only one — many more asked the same question. Few Malaysians know much about Estonia, the tiny Baltic nation in the northern part of Europe.

I had the rare opportunity to learn more about the amazing country when I was given the chance to attend a summer school programme there, thanks to the Baltic Film and Media School in Tallinn University.

The programme,Transmedia Story Telling and Audience Engagement, ran from Aug 3 to Aug 11. It was packed with insightful lectures, meetings and a field trip to Estonia’s biggest annual Opinion Festival in Paide. In addition to that, I had the chance to experience one of Estonia’s spas in Tartu.

Nine foreign journalists from countries like Zambia, Chile, Mongolia, Armenia and Lebanon attended the programme, where they learned about the many fascinating and delightful facets of Estonia. We were given the chance to explore many parts of the country — from Old Tallinn, its capital during the mediaeval era — to the university town of Tartu, which is considered the intellectual centre of the country.

e-Estonia Showroom
I did some research before my trip and found, to my surprise, that Estonia prides itself for being the most advanced digital society in the world.

The fairy tale streets of Old Town Tallinn

Through its e-society initiative, 99% of its public services are available online!

Walking through the fairy tale-like streets of Old Town Tallinn — listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997 — it was hard to believe that this tiny nation is home to one of the most advanced e-governance systems in the world.

With just 1.3 million people in the country, Estonia has made quite an impression on the global stage, attracting high-tech initiatives from world leaders, academics and venture capitalists.

Even Skype, the telecommunications app currently owned by Microsoft, was found and developed in its capital, Tallinn. Now a free app, Skype was the pioneer in peer-to-peer communication, making video calls feasible even in the days of slow Internet connection, back in the mid-2000s.

On the third day of the summer school programme, we visited the e-Estonia Showroom, a Tallinn-based executive briefing centre and innovation hub designed with the e-State experience in mind.

We were briefed by Anett Numa, the spokesperson for the e-Estonia Showroom on the function of e-Society and as well as the e-Residency, a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s transparent digital business environment. The programme allows non-Estonians access to Estonian services such as company formation, banking, payment processing and taxation.

“When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country embarked on a series of fast-track reforms to modernise the economy. From the start, it took a digital approach, thus the e-Governance centre was opened five years later.

Being a digital society in Estonia, there is a need for their govt officials to prepare for any cyber threats. Tammist says that the cyber attack taught them that as a digital society, every citizen needed to practice ‘cyber hygiene’

“We started our e-Taxes in 2000. Every one of us pay our taxes online and we can do it in less than five minutes. We also started the e-Voting and e-Health (systems) in 2005 and 2008,” Numa said.

She said in 2002, Estonia launched a high-tech national identity (ID) system where physical cards were introduced to pair with digital signatures. Citizens use the system to pay their taxes, vote, do online banking, register birth and death, as well as access their healthcare records.

“The only services you cannot access online in Estonia are marriage, divorce and property transactions,” she said.

Numa added that to date, about 98% Estonians have their own ID card, while 46.7% of them use the e-Voting system.

“Although we set up polling centres in each district, we still encourage people to cast their vote online, as the service is fast and can be done anywhere. Through the e-Health system, patients have access to their own health records which contain medical case notes, test results, surgeries, digital prescriptions and X-rays by their doctors,” she said.

In the early stages of e-Service introduction, the percentage of Estonians using the internet was just 29%, but with the government’s effort to offer free computer training to the elderly population, the figure rose to 91% by 2016.

“In 2001, we became one of the first countries to declare Internet access as a human right.

“In 2014, e-Residency was introduced where anyone in the world can apply to become an e-Resident of Estonia and open a business with full access to the public e-Services from anywhere in the world, entirely online,” she said.

Numa said all the data are stored in a connected series of networks called the X-Road system.

“While it allows government and private sectors easy access to data collected by other departments, it also allows Estonian citizens to see exactly who has accessed what data and challenge any suspicious behaviour,” she said.

It was inspiring to see such a small nation using an e-Governance system so advanced that it is emulated by bigger countries, including Malaysia.

It is therefore little wonder that our Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo was once quoted saying that Malaysia should emulate the northern European country as 99% of its government services are available digitally.

Estonia’s Cyber Security
With almost all of its services online, one had to wonder about the aspect of cyber security.

We had the opportunity to learn more about how the country handles cyberthreats during a short session with Estonia’s former Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Rene Tammist.

Tammist said the X-Road, a data storage system for e-Estonia, is currently also used by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the US Department of Defence, and throughout the European Union (EU).

“In 2007, the country suffered a massive cyber attack that brought down most of its digital infrastructure. Nato and the government then conducted large-scale cyber defence drills and created a data embassy where it stores copies of its data in Luxembourg,” he said.

Tammist said that the cyber attack taught them that as a digital society, every citizen needed to practice ‘cyber hygiene’.

“We will always be teaching and educating people, remind them to not click on suspicious software or download any applications that might be linked to the hackers and give them access to our information,” he said.

The Opinion Festival
On the sixth day of our programme, we took a bus to Paide, about 100km from Tallinn, to participate in the nation’s seventh Arvamusfestival (Opinion Culture Festival).

Paide is a city in the heart of Estonia with 8,200 residents. Every year, it welcomes around 10,000 guests who take part in over 160 discussions in Estonian languages and English. This year’s festival ran from Aug 9 to 10.

The festival’s spokesperson, Maiko Keskula, said that people came to the festival to listen to over 24 different topics, including politics, environment, human rights and business, among others.

“The festival aims to create a common understanding of the rules of what makes a beneficial discussion, that’s why during these two days Paide is the place where one can meet interesting people, especially political leaders face-to-face,” he said, adding that the entry is free for all participants.

International Media Approach
Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Baltic Film and Media School of Tallinn University have collaborated on the summer school programme since five years ago, in a bid to engage international journalists for experience and introduce Estonia to the world.

The Olde Hansa restaurant also provides guests with a whole experience using a combination of candlelight, waiters, and waitresses in period costume and medieval background music

Katrin Saks, the director of the school, said the programme was meant not only for journalists who are interested in the practices and developments of the media in Estonia and the EU but also in the various applications of digital media.

“The media is a special interest group that can help promote individual countries and regional diplomatic integration, as well as to introduce the good things we have in our country.

“In fact, we compose the programme in such a way that participants can also take part in our vibrant cultural life and enjoy some sightseeing, among other things.

“Since 2014, the project has been very successful in bringing 160 newspapers and broadcast journalists and new media representatives from 32 countries to Estonia and we have received a lot of good feedback,” she told Bernama.

I personally enjoyed my week in Estonia and the company of my classmates. In addition to making new friends from different countries, I was also able to get to know many Estonians, dine on their traditional foods and learn the culture.

Despite the country’s gloomy and unpredictable summer, my visit to Estonia — the first of European countries that I have ever visited — was indeed an unforgettable one. — Bernama