Estonia is ready for the digital future. This country, in 25 years, has gone from living under the Soviet Union, where less than the half of Estonian citizens had a telephone line, to become one of the most advanced countries in the digital world. Estonia has considered technology as part of its cultural independence. The Baltic country has become a reference state for those that are making steps towards the electronic public services and e-government. Moreover, digital skills are a fundamental issue in the Estonian education system.
Estonians have realized how important digital skills in education are for the current and next generations. This country managed to create digital platforms for education and these are totally part of schools and education systems. Students today are completely digital-native. Already with seven years old, children learn in all Estonian schools how to programme computers. Teachers have been trained to transmit digital skills to students and they are convinced that, teaching how to programme does not mean only how to deal with computers or digital-related objects, but it especially helps students to develop their logical thinking and their creativity, for instance, creating their own games. Thanks to a project to equip classrooms with computers, all schools were online by 1998.
Thanks to the school managing tool eKool (e-school) there is a connected network where pupils, families and teachers are connected, which means that the whole learning community can benefit of this kind of digital tools. What are the advantages of e-school tools like ekool? First, parents are more aware of their children’s progress at school by acceding to their grades and receiving digital weekly reports with a summary of the child’s week. They can also consult their child’s timetable, the lessons descriptions and homework (quite useful if children are sick), they can quickly communicate with teachers and other parents (explain on absences, make sure their children get to the lessons, etc.). Secondly, pupils can have simple access to their study-related information and can easily communicate with teachers at any time to consult their grades and absences, study resources, timetables, lesson descriptions, homework, etc. Moreover, for teachers this kind of tools or platforms are also a great advantage, as it provides them the option of entering grades and managing study related information, for instance, uploading study resources and communicating with parents and pupils through school and development reports. Finally, the authorities have also a good overview of what is going on in schools under their management.
This e-School service was launched in Estonia in 2002. It is the most used e-service of all time in the country. In 2010, it covered 70% of schools and 95% of Estonian students.
In addition to education, Estonia is a digital protagonist in other areas as well. The Baltic country was the first State to allow voting online in a general election, in 2007. Estonia has one of the world’s fastest broadband and the record of start-ups per person. Just an example: Skype was a start-up created in Estonia, which went global and was bought by Microsoft for 8,5 billion dollars.
Estonia is also well advanced in terms of e-payments. Estonians pay, for instance, parking spaces via their mobiles. Healthcare is also digitalized in Estonia. 98% of the medication is prescribed online thanks to a centralized and paperless system for issuing and handling medical prescriptions. Estonians use the digital cloud to store Estonians’ health records. But also in terms of public security, e-services have huge opportunities. The e-Police system revolutionizes police communications and coordination, which leads to a more effective policing.
The performance of the Baltic country on information technology achievement is quite successful. Sophisticated public services are offered online, such as filing the annual tax return online through an automated system in just five minutes. Thanks to their national identity card with a microchip, Estonians have access to 4,000 services.
Estonian government has very well understood the importance and the opportunities of the new digital era. The current Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, who succeeded Andrus Ansip, now the EU digital chef, said that “it’s easier to communicate with the state, and there’s a lot less bureaucracy”. Less bureaucracy means more efficiency and a more dynamic administration and better coordination between the State and citizens.
Furthermore, Estonia is the first country in the world to offer e-residency (2014), a transnational digital identity issued by the Estonian government which gives you the option to run a company online, in addition to digital services. 750,000 foreign entrepreneurs have already registered. This transnational digital identity enables the fact of administering a location-independent business online. E-residents can establish an Estonian company online, administer this company from anywhere in the world, digitally sign documents and contracts and verify the authenticity of signed documents, encrypt and transmit documents securely, conduct e-banking and remote money transfers, declare Estonian taxes online and access online payments service providers, among other digital services. 95% of tax declarations in Estonia are filed electronically, a process taking from 3 to 5 minutes. With e-tax, the time spent by individuals and entrepreneurs on filing taxes is drastically reduced.
Of course the new digital age has lots of advantages, but new challenges and threats arise at the same time. Cybersecurity is a parallel pillar which must be developed and reinforced. As Mr. Ansip has recently said, “systems have to be based on strong encryption and have no back doors”.
As a conclusion, right after the independence from the USSR, Estonia had a population of 1,3 million people and lacked of resources. For this reason, providing services to citizens was a challenge for the authorities. Today, ICT sector represents 6,8% of Estonian economy. Estonian digital know-how is now exported to other countries. All this has been possible thanks to the reforms of the young government of Prime Minister Mart Laar after Estonia’s independence to change towards free trade and privatisation, which allowed new businesses registering in the country. When the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, appointed Andrus Ansip as Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, he was aware of the experience of Mr. Ansip as Prime Minister of Estonia for 9 years, so he could also take the lead at the European level as EU digital chief. His aim in Europe? To achieve a better online access to digital goods and services, to design an environment where digital networks and services can prosper, and to ensure that digitisation of the economy and industry becomes a driver for growth.
Author: Rubén Ruiz Calleja