Estonia’s unique digitalisation experience: an interview with Erika Piirmets
By Vyara Tsvetkova
Erika Piirmets is a brilliant Estonian that I met through our shared interests in international volunteering and youth work. She works as a digital transformation advisor for the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, and her responsibilities include sharing Estonia’s success story in creating their digital society, presenting practices, and explaining how the process works – how Estonia came to be one of the leading digital nations in the world, and how the daily life of such a digital society looks like. She is also raising awareness of the digitalization success among people, decision-makers from foreign governments, and the private sector.
So, what makes Estonia one of the “most advanced digitised countries in the world”? How has the history of the country affected its digitalisation? Why is that process important? The answers to these questions and more you will find in this interview.
V: Why are your work and the topic of the digitalization of society important to you?
E: While I was living abroad, there were moments when I had to introduce Estonia. With it being a small country in the Northeast, I met a lot of people who had never heard about it and wanted to learn more. I realized that the most popular topic of interest about Estonia among people from other countries was connected to e-Estonia.
It was strange for me to see their disbelief as it is something so natural to me. The digital society is only a bit younger than I am, so my whole conscious life has been connected to the electronic identity, technology, and electronic services. For a long time I wasn’t really aware that it was not something most people knew about. However, my experiences abroad showed me that e-Estonia is something that foreigners were interested in and that it required a lot of introduction on my part – not because they weren’t used to technology or educated enough but rather that they didn’t have the mindset and the habit. So, when this job opportunity presented itself, I saw it as a continuation of my process of introducing people abroad to our digital society. Therefore, I would be able to lift my mission to a higher level in terms of visibility, allowing me to reach a larger audience through the platform.
This was very important for me as I have always been looking for jobs with a focus on strong missions and purposes. I truly believe in what I say, and a lot of the things I share come from my own life experiences and how I perceive things. The type of knowledge that I transmit, and the things I talk about are not simply marketing. I am not selling anything; I am simply raising awareness in topics I believe in: the digital transformation, automatization, the idea that we as individuals should spend less time, energy and money on bureaucratic processes and instead spend more time on soft topics such as creating close relationships, our hobbies, etc. I just don’t believe that the vision that bureaucracy needs to be such a big part of our lives is beneficial for us; this is simply not how governments and countries should work. We always have to remember that the highest power is the nation – the citizens. There is no point in having a country where the citizens are serving it and not the other way around.
V: Can you elaborate more on what your personal experience related to public e-services has been?
E: A particular example I want to highlight was from the time I lived in Spain. One day I was confused to see a really long line in front of a bank early in the morning. So, I asked some locals “What is going on?”. I thought that for that many people to be here, there must be a problem with the mortgages or something terrible was happening. That was the only explanation I could come up with. Then the woman next to me shocked me by saying that they were just lining up to go and physically pay their bills in the bank. This came as a huge shock because all my life I have been doing this online; I’ve never received a letter or a document in the mailbox that I then have to physically go and pay somewhere.
Another example is that February will be a really nice time for us, Estonians, as it is the tax declaration period, and declaring taxes online is one of the first e-services that was ever developed in the government sector. I personally have never known what it is to declare taxes on paper, which is the case in a lot of countries. I have no idea how the tax office or the paper form would even look like. All my life I have been declaring taxes online, and it only takes me three minutes. Like next, next, and submit. Through this e-service, I get my excess tax money in a matter of days. What this means though is that the basis of our digital nation is the electronic identity which proves my authenticity online. It needs to be a really secure way to do transactions online. Our electronic identity is issued by the state, and it has the highest security standards in place. So, with all of the governmental and private services that I access through the internet, I can be absolutely sure that all of my information is secure, that my digital identity cannot be misused, or that somebody won’t manipulate my data.
I have done a whole other range of things online too: apply and pay for my university, change my residency, my address, apply for any benefits or scholarships…Everything I do, I do it online. I can only remember one or two instances that I’ve ever had to physically go somewhere to consume a service.
V: In one of your recent articles, you mentioned having electronic prescriptions. Can you elaborate more on that?
E: It is actually not a recent development with regards to the pandemic. It is a really old e-service, dating from over 10 years ago. I will try to explain the process from the beginning.
All of our data is stored in a distributed manner. There is the educational registry that has all of my educational data, including which schools I have attended when I have graduated, what diplomas I have, and so on. Similarly, there is a health registry that stores all of my health-related data and all of my doctor visits. So when I go to another doctor, they are obliged to enter the basic information about my visit in the system in case another one needs to access all of my previous medical history.
Here, we have the principle that the government doesn't own your data; you do. The government is just holding it on its servers. So what does it mean? In the example of the health data, if I don't want another doctor to see some previous appointments, I can hide the visit information. I have access to that system, and I decide what part of my information other people can see.
Because of the interconnectivity, all of my medical data will be connected to my electronic identity, which is accessible through my ID card. So all I need to do is take my identification card to the pharmacy. The pharmacists will simply read the data with the card reader, and I will get my medicine. There are no checks, no paper, no forms; it’s just my ID. In some cases, I can also just call my doctor to put a prescription for a certain medicine on my electronic identification, which means that I can simply go to the pharmacy without even going to the doctor first. Also, because of the interconnectivity with some countries like Finland, Croatia, and Portugal, I can call my Estonian doctor and get a prescription on my ID without physically meeting any doctors in these countries.
V: How does the history of Estonia affect its digitalization?
E: The key point in how we became a digital nation is the reality after we restored our independence and our own republic in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a myth that Estonia decided to go digital. But that’s simply not true – we had to do it because we were poor. We had to go digital because we had no laws, no money, no currency; we didn't have any of the bureaucratic processes in place needed to build a democratic republic which would be completely different from the state regime we’ve had before. So the only possibility was to offer e-services that would be location-independent. We are a really sparsely populated country, so for us, a village can be three households that are three kilometers away from each other. So, how do you construct government services there? Do you build a state office for every three houses? Also, we have to keep in mind that building these facilities and hiring people for them is expensive, and we couldn’t afford that.
The digital way was basically the cheapest solution we could offer. There is also the fact that since the 1960s we have had a very strong cybernetic competence center based in Tallinn which has created a very needed knowledge and know-how-to in programming, contributing to our technological advancement.
I just want to point out that while technology is important, it is not the obstacle that we are facing right now in the world in terms of digital transformation; the mindset is the problem. People still have a lot of fears connected with digitalization; those in high positions in the governments are not raising enough awareness among their own citizens, they are not showing them the benefits of digitalization. It is not a process you can force – the people have to be on board for it to work. You have to show them consistently that there is more to gain than to lose or fear in this scenario.
"We always have to remember that
the highest power is the nation – the citizens.
There is no point in having a country
where the citizens are serving it
and not the other way around."
V: Do you vote online?
E: Yes, absolutely, for a long time now. This is a topic of interest for a lot of other countries, especially since we are a former Soviet country and people think that we would be fabricating the data. But no. Again, one of the basic principles of the Estonian digital societies is to be open and transparent. Our government constantly invites foreign experts to come and oversee the validity of our elections. All of the technical codes and applications are open, free, and available for anyone with the necessary technical skills to see how the programs are built and to ensure the integrity of the data. Moreover, each election has a new application developed for it, specifically to make certain that the voting is not compromised.
Some people say that online voting is a threat to democracy, but it is actually the opposite – it supports democracy by ensuring that every single citizen, no matter their location, has access to voting.
Rose, Charlie. “Estonia - a Fully Digitised Nation - e-Estonia.” E-Estonia, 3 June 2022, https://e-estonia.com/estonia-a-fully-digitised-nation/.