In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, Andrejs Lunde registered his three-day-old son Oskar as a citizen in just minutes by connecting to his laptop and inserting his ID card. The new system allows parents to register their children online thereby eliminating needless waits in line and endless paperwork.
Estonia, which has a population of 1.3 million, is hoping to go completely digital in an effort to end bureaucracy, maximize transparency and further economic growth. The initiative will allow other countries to see how providing online services may benefit future generations. The virtual services enable patients to refill prescriptions, drivers to renew their licenses and parents to see if their children’s homework was completed. All services live on a single platform that can be accessed through electronic authentication and digital signatures, providing paperless communication in all sectors.
There are some limitations though. Citizens won’t be able to marry, divorce or transfer property online, but the new virtual services have dramatically reduced lines at government agencies. Next spring, the government will begin to register newborns automatically, sending parents a welcome email. Though the former member of the Soviet Union seems like a surprising location for such technological advances, these are in sync with the country’s digital progress. Skype, after all, was developed by Priit Kasesalu, Jaan Tallinn and Ahti Heinla, three Estonians working with other European designers. The video-conferencing service was bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion in 2011.
"In an ideal world, in the case of an invisible government, when a new child is born neither of the parents would ever have to apply for anything: to get maternity leave, to get child support from the municipality, to get a kindergarten place, to put the name to the child," said Marten Kaevats, Estonia's national digital adviser. "All of those different services would be delivered automatically."
The system extends beyond just human services. Pet vaccination records are also available online. Despite concerns about data hacking, the new services have been welcomed by Estonians, who can monitor the system to see if a government or private agency has accessed their information. "To generate trust, you really have to have transparency," Kaevats said. "And that's why people have access to their own data. And that's why they can actually see if the government has used their own data."
The platform is supported X-Road, a decentralized data exchange software system that connects databases. All outgoing data will be digitally signed and encrypted, and all incoming data will be authenticated and logged.
After Estonia declared its independence in 1991, the economy was in shambles. The new government was unsure as to how the country would survive so they decided to focus on information technology and the internet as a means to boost innovation and new industries. At the time, the country was still using a 1930s phone system, which Finland offered to replace with a late 1970s analog system for free. However, former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves opted to invest in new digital technology.
Ilves, who was raised in the US, was already familiar with computer technology. He believed that children should be exposed to IT early on, so the government began introducing computer labs in schools. Banks followed suit by moving its transactions online. Nowadays, over 99 percent of the country's banking transactions are conducted online.
Despite its apparent success, some question whether the system can be implemented on a broader scale. "When you add in more people, more diverse stakeholders, more layers of government at the city, state, and local level, you are adding in exponentially more complexity," said Zvika Krieger, head of technology policy and partnerships at the World Economic Forum.
Estonia, however, believes that their approach allows citizens to manage their personal data, rather than leaving that information in the hands of the government. "Estonians hate their politicians just as much as everyone else," Ilves said. "But at least since the administration of the state works extremely well and efficiently, people trust the system."