Living the digital narrative

Posted on 29. June 2014

by Anna Karolin

anna-karolinI have two laptops (work and personal), a tablet I use for reading and a high end smartphone for tracking, calling and taking pictures. I know how to operate all major social media sites and can familiarise myself with software with a user-friendly interface within a few hours. I don’t know how to programme yet, but I will soon start an online course to learn. I am not special, I am just a young Estonian, the digitally literate. My government makes living a digital life damn easy. Filing taxes online takes few minutes, most of the documents can be obtained digitally and the most important procedure between me and my state—voting—can also be conducted with few clicks.

At the centre of this digital extravaganza is the digital signature and the X-road. Every Estonian citizen has to own a national ID-card equipped with an electronic chip. This card holds unique data and a number sequence identifying only me, Anna Karolin. To use this I need installed software, ID-card reader and two pin codes and I can sign contracts online and access any business service with it and see documents signed by others. My digital signature is legally equal to my physical signature and to tell you the truth, I haven’t given any physical signatures lately. The card’s data is extensively encrypted and so far completely safe. No case of data theft has been reported so far. Many seem sceptical, forgetting that we already operate in a world run by chips—the banking system.

The same card is used when casting your vote on elections online. Voting is conducted with the help of an e-voting application, which encrypts my vote in the same way as my physical vote would be transferred to counting procedures in an envelope. An outer envelope with my data is added to make sure my vote is recorded. E-voting takes place about a week before national voting and if I still decide to go and vote, my e-vote is cancelled. In May 2014 European Parliament elections 11,5% of Estonians voted online – including me. The system has also received some criticism, but so far seems as safe as it gets.

The X-road is a system of government databases, which enables secure Internet-based data exchange between the state’s information systems—swapping data more easily, but also protecting data extensively. The X-road allows more efficient information gathering without having me adducing a document to every agency I go to and allows for the paperless e-state to operate. I can access my data on the X-road with my ID-card and get valuable information about the status of my health insurance, criminal offences or any other data the government has about me. Every inquiry made by an official about me is recorded and visible to me ensuring transparency.

Europe is not picking up its phone

Many claim that digital innovation is something that sets Estonia apart and could be our strategic advantage in the global markets. Our government is working hard to cooperate with other countries in exporting our solutions and co-operating to develop new ones (I salute the other digital tigers—Finland and the Netherlands).

Digital innovation could also be of strategic importance to the European Union. The European Union’s digital agenda claims to have 101 activities to make sure EU’s economy gets a reboot and citizens the most out of digital development, but from the Estonian point of view, Europe is not doing anything right. Apparently attempts have been made to introduce the idea of the digital signature in EU meetings, but a majority of the leaders seem to not understand how it works or how can it be safe. It might be that EU ministerial meetings are filled with gloomy scenarios about the future of the Eurozone, but as long as we do not turn our attention towards systematically developing and innovating our economies, it will continue to be gloomy. If EU’s high officials’ idea of digital innovation ends at using Twitter to share links about their meetings then we are in trouble. Imagine the storm of efficiency in the much dreamed EU single market, where signing contracts or starting a business won’t take few months, but few clicks.

Still a dream, but a good narrative

Some claim it has been easy for Estonia — our nation with 1,3 million people sums up to a district in London. Those some would be partly right, as it is definitely easier to start building your modern governing systems during the last 23 years.

But to be perfectly honest, we are also not living the full digital dream yet. While we can enjoy the digital benefits as consumers and citizens, the spill over effect has not reached all Estonians. Many adults raised in the Soviet education system or right after that are lagging behind, with the digital tiger breathing on their neck. According to the OECD PIAAC study on adult skills Estonian workers lack computer skills– about 16% feel unsure about using computers at work and 10% have never used a computer in their life. Nordic countries and Japan beat us by far. Hopefully, our educational system will remove those disparities between new generations.

It is often discussed in our media that after joining the EU and NATO, Estonia is missing a big narrative to connect our society, often the term “not having our own Nokia” is used. While not every Estonian is an IT wizard today, creating new Skypes can be our next big national project. And while narratives are mostly stories, they give life and inspiration to political and social processes. I am happy if a little exaggerated narrative of the Estonian digital dream will start to work and inspire political actors to invest resources into something they do not know much about, but that is promising and innovative. Because Estonian leaders not only tweet, but also work to create the best environment for young start-ups. I only wish that other EU member states could be part of that narrative.

And now you can.

If you feel like your European government is among those lagging behind, it is now possible to join E-stonia and get your own (non-resident’s) ID-card. A plan proposed by an IT-visionary Taavi Kotka to offer e-citizenships” for non-Estonians and expand the use of electronic IDs beyond Estonia’s borders will be a reality. This will allow foreigners to use the nation’s convenient e-services to do things like open bank accounts or set up companies without setting foot in the country. Globally positioned E-embassies will help to spread the citizenship and with more people joining, more global services can be created. Come and join the digital narrative!

This article is a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.