Estonian national costumes: 5. Muhu 6. Karja 7...
Estonian national costumes: 5. Muhu 6. Karja 7. Tõstamaa 8. Pärnu-Jaagupi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

TALLINN, Estonia – The centuries-old city center here looks quaintly antique, with cobbled streets lined by medieval buildings at nearly every turn. But the people have fully embraced the digital world, enthusiastically adopting public and private online services.

Estonians, using national identity card embedded with a microchip, gain access to some 4,000 services, including banking, business registration and even fishing licenses. They review medical records on smartphones. Almost everyone files taxes on the web within minutes, and about a third of voters now cast their ballots online.

While Europe and the United States debate the role of technology in people’s daily lives, Estonia has welcomed it as a fact of life, shooting away concerns about data privacy. In the last 23 years, Estonia, a Baltic country, has transformed from being a member of the Soviet bloc to one of the most connected countries, using technology built primarily within its borders.

The rest of the world has taken notice. The country’s former prime minister, Andrus Ansip, is the new European Commission vice president in charge of Europe’s digital future. “I know from personal experience that paperless government can work,” he said.

With a population of 1.3 million, Estonia faces fewer challenges than bigger countries like Britain and the United States when introducing online services. The transformation has been made on a small budget. The country spends about 50 million euros a year on information technology.

Its decision to go digital also has been driven by the fact that, at independence, it had few financial resources and a small population to jump-start its economy.

Local policy makers soon realized that they could not offer Western-style services without using new technology that could keep costs to a minimum.

Estonia relies on a government-run technology infrastructure, called X-Road that links public and private databases into the country’s digital services. All personal information is kept on separate servers and behind distinct security walls of government agencies, but the system allows the state and businesses like banks to share data when individuals give consent.

Estonians say the online services are more secure and more convenient than traditional methods of dealing with the government.

“Digital services have changed our lives,” said Taavi Roivas, who recently succeeded Mr. Ansip as prime minister.

About 98 percent of Estonians file their income taxes online, taking about five minutes, said Marek Helm, who leads Estonia’s tax and customs authority. That has increased overall tax compliance, cut his agency’s staff in half, and made tax refunds possible within a week.

There were some problems. Estonia’s online medical portal routinely crashed after digital prescriptions were introduced in 2010 because retirees kept signing into the system to renew their medication on the day they all received their pensions. And some local politicians have alleged fraud in online voting.

But the country now wants to take its digital services global by signing up people living outside Europe for so-called “e-residencies “that would give them access to Estonia’s public and private online services.

The upside, Estonians say, is convenience. “I can’t imagine doing things the old-fashioned way,” said Priit Heinla, 27, a project manager for an energy company who uses digital signatures. “You don’t have to sign a mountain of paperwork. It’s just one signature and you’re done.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, November 1, 2014


Post a Comment