The Estonian experience has showed us that DPI and DPG are both viable and valuable tools for the process of administrative and political modernisation
Being a socio-technical construct, the DPI is a complex concept with diverse interpretations, definitions, and distinctions. Broadly, the DPI refers to the multitude of tools and systems required for letting individuals engage in public and civic life in digital spaces. In line with that, for the purpose of this paper, the DPI is understood as the enabling environment, or “ecosystem”, for Digital Public Goods (DPG) and online public/political engagement. This means that, expanding on more exclusive approaches, in this paper, the DPI does not refer only to a restricted set of DPGs that are considered crucial for digitalisation (e.g., solutions for electronic identification, data sharing and payment). Instead, the understanding of DPI is broader and comprises the whole of standards, technical components and services, as well as institutional framework and organisational structures/processes, which are necessary for DPGs, and public and civic interactions in cyberspace. This includes, under institutional settings, policies such as the interoperability framework and information society strategies, as well as rules and regulations set by legislation (e.g., Access to Public Information Act). Moreover, organisational setups related to management and financing of DPGs, procurement processes and rules, or even the organisations’ online connectivity would fall, as well, within this paper’s understanding of DPI. Estonia continuing contribution to the development and spread of DPIs can be presented or structured in two dimensions. The first one concerns the concrete development and adoption of DPIs that have been crucial for the Estonia’s successful process of digitalisation. This refers to the developments in the country’s policy and legal framework, organisational and financial set-up and the development of open source digital solutions for government modernisation, made available for others for re-use. One can also highlight here the country’s capacity to innovate and build new digital infrastructure and its openness to commit to, and apply digital solutions developed by others. The second dimension concerns Estonia’s concrete efforts and initiatives to promote the development and use of DPIs around the world. This has been observed in the country’s continuous promotion and support in implementing DPIs globally through bilateral and multilateral partnerships.
Delving into this relationship, this short paper discusses the role of Estonia in the development and promotion of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and Digital Public Goods (DPG).
Estonia continuing contribution to the development and spread of DPIs can be presented or structured in two dimensions.
Other relevant contributions to the development of DPIs and proliferation of DPGs were established in the Public Information Act and Databases Act (later incorporated into the Public Information Act) by providing, or enforcing, public access to public data. The Public Information Act (PIA), which was passed in 2000, and entered into force on January 1 2001, obliged all public institutions to create and keep websites that provided online content of public interest. Additionally, the PIA gives the right to re-use public information, functioning as the Estonian open data law, regulating the collection, maintenance and sharing of data and, therefore, also public registries. Moreover, the Public Information Act also regulates the management of the national information system (RIHA), the data exchange layer X-Road. Different other documents have supporting organisations with the process of opening their data, such as the Open Data Green Paper. Overall, Estonia has a strong institutional framework that supports the development and proliferation of DPIs. These essential legal acts include, but are not limited to, the Databases Act (adopted in 1997), Personal Data Protection Act (adopted 1996), Public Information Act - PIA (adopted in 2000, entering into force on January 1, 2001), X-Road Regulation (adopted 2003), and State Assets Act. The State Assets Act has been amended, in 2021 to introduce a mandatory open-source requirement to the digital public developments, as well as the possibility to make those public sector digital developments open for re-usage. This amendment has further solidified the importance of DPI in the Estonian public sector, which, being present since the 2000s, in the digital society policies and frameworks, has always guided Estonia’s digital transformation. The X-Road regulation lists the main requirements and principles for connecting information systems of both public institutions and private enterprises with X-Road and for the data exchange between the members of X-Road. In addition to the principles written in its legal and institutional framework, Estonia also has built an important organisational and financial set-up to oversee and guarantee the sustainability of its DPIs and DPGs. A clear example was the creation, together with Finland, of the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS). The NIIS, established in 2017, is responsible for the development and maintenance of DPIs for cross-border data sharing and service delivery. With a budget of 2.5 million EUR in 2021, equally shared by its three members (Estonia, Finland, and Iceland), the NIIS maintains the X-Road software and the e-Delivery Harmony, a gateway to the EU data exchange solution. In Estonia, the Estonian Information System Authority (RIA) coordinates the development and management of state information systems, including Public Key Infrastructures related operations such as the X-Road but also the state portal, the administration system of the State information system (RIHA), and the electronic document exchange centre (DVK). By better allowing the pooling of financial and human resources across borders, initiatives such as the NIIS are critical for the development and maintenance of digital infrastructure in Estonia.
The PIA gives the right to re-use public information, functioning as the Estonian open data law, regulating the collection, maintenance and sharing of data and, therefore, also public registries.
Together with the compulsory national digital ID, the data sharing infrastructure X-Road is a cornerstone of the Estonian e-government infrastructure and one of the best examples of Estonia’s efforts for the development and promotion of DPI. X-Road was released in December 2001 and the first database connected to the X-Road was the Population Registry<1>. Even though it took some years until government institutions started to connect their information systems and registries into the X-Road, this platform now connects more than 900 public and private organisations, providing more than 3000 services and with more than 11 billion requests made to this date. Besides the X-Road, Estonia’s commitment to the improvement and spread of DPI is also observed in their continued development of new DPGs, particularly in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI), under the umbrella of AI GovStack. The recent AI action plan for 2022-2023 foresees, with a budget of 20 million EUR, the development of around 40 reusable building blocks that can be integrated with other digital tools and services. Moreover, a budget of 13 million Euros has been allocated to the development, by 2025, of the all-governmental chatbot ‘Bürokratt’. Some other open-source AI components include a translation engine, speech recognition and synthesis tools, as well as text analytics solutions.
The State Assets Act has been amended, in 2021 to introduce a mandatory open-source requirement to the digital public developments, as well as the possibility to make those public sector digital developments open for re-usage.
Indeed, the X-Road is a great example of a widely applied Estonian DPG, being implemented in more than 20 countries by the public and private sectors. In some countries like the Faroe Islands, Palestine, Caiman Islands, Serbia, Djibouti, and Kyrgystan, the X-Road is being implemented with the support of the e-Governance Academy Foundation, a digital governance competence centre based in Tallinn. Moreover, in several other countries, including Ukraine, Namibia, and Benin, a data interoperability solution that follows the X-Road prototype is being implemented together with the e-Governance Academy Foundation and private sector partners, such as Cybernetica. Nortal, Aktors, and many others. Ultimately, Estonia’s experience and practice with X-Road has served as an important base for the European Interoperability Framework. Is also included in the registry of the UN Digital Public Goods Alliance. Overall, since its independence, Estonia has been both an early adopter and a very vocal advocate of public digital infrastructure and free and open-source solutions for the government and political modernisation. As we can see from the highlighted examples, this vision is deeply rooted in the Estonian institutional framework. It has been developed and sustained with a complex organisational and financial set-up, as well as with several multilateral partnerships. Besides the development and provision of digital infrastructures and goods, Estonia’s support for DPIs can also be observed in this country’s commitment to applying digital public goods developed by others. A good example was the use of an online participation platform in 2012 developed by the Citizens Foundation in Iceland for the crowdsourcing democratic initiative Rahvakogu (People’s Assembly). This platform has been, since then, used by several Estonian municipalities to promote citizens’ public and civic participation in local affairs. The city of Tallinn is currently conducting, using this same platform, a crowdsourcing initiative with the aim of improving the city’s air quality. This is another great example of the importance of GPIs in promoting citizens’ political engagement and participation and, ultimately, strengthening our democracies.
Estonia has also joined the Digital Public Goods Alliance in June 2022, which is one of the 8 components of the UN digital cooperation report, and has endorsed, as well, the Digital Public Goods Charter.
To conclude, the Estonian experience has showed us that DPI and DPG are both viable and valuable tools for the process of administrative and political modernisation. They were key determinants for Estonia’s successful process of digitalization and stemmed, as we highlighted, from this country’s early commitment to, through the use of new technologies, strengthen the democratic principles of openness and transparency. Moreover, the DPI were also crucial to bolster Estonia’s security, effectiveness, and efficiency. Pooling resources, nationally and cross-border, and the alignment of actions and investments, have been essential in guaranteeing a sustainable digitalisation, and will continue to be critical in the light of lack of skills and other resources. Those were both lessons and tools that Estonia has been eager and devoted to share with the world, in order to increase, together with other countries, the resilience and strength of our societies. These are objectives that, as the covid crisis and Ukraine’s invasion has shown us, countries now must strive to achieve, making the DPI a cornerstone of our democratic future.
Pooling resources, nationally and cross-border, and the alignment of actions and investments, have been essential in guaranteeing a sustainable digitalisation, and will continue to be critical in the light of lack of skills and other resources.
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Nele Leosk Ambassador-at-Large for Digital Affairs Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of EstoniaRead More +