The Estonian example - EntornoInteligente / The Trinidad Guardian / I once wrote an article on Finns travelling by boat to Estonia to escape alcohol consumption restrictions. It was a university assignment. I’ve never been to either place and most of my research was done online.

Believe it or not, this was the only mental reference I had to Estonia until a few weeks ago. I don’t think that would surprise many Caribbean people but, as a journalist, I was embarrassed because what I learnt about the Baltic nation, I think, everyone in the world should know. But more than that, as a Caribbean person, I’m encouraged by the example of a small and new nation looking for a way out of poverty—The Estonian Example.

Have you ever used Skype? Well, Skype is just one of hundreds of technological tools that Estonia has offered to the world in the last two decades. But it hasn’t been by chance. Estonia’s thriving online technology and innovation is the result of a consistent and sustained policy-led approach to development. Twenty-five years ago, when an obscure tool called the internet began to be popular, Estonia was searching for a way to shed its communist past as part of the USSR and feed its 1.3 million people. With no obvious natural resources, thinkers turned their attention to the new tool of technology.

The leader of this movement was Toomas Henrik Ilves who later became Estonia’s President. Ilves’ approach was simple: either the online innovation happens here, or it happens elsewhere. And it did happen there. At the heart of Estonia’s innovation, job creation and human development is an online system that allows Estonians to easily interact with the state and other agencies without leaving home.

Ninety-nine per cent of Estonia’s public services are available online, including voting and residency applications. It’s possible to become a resident of Estonia without ever touching the soil.

The basis of this is a unique digital identity for all Estonians. In other words, all nationals live in physical space, as well as in cyberspace. All records are also stored securely online and a platform called X Road manages the secure transfer of data from one place to the other, as long as it is approved by the citizen who owns the data.

So, say you visit a new doctor and she wants to see what medication you’ve taken over the last five years, that data can be transferred from public hospital and pharmacy files to the private doctor’s office with the click of a button. And you can rest assured that the doctor only accesses the information you want her to see. Since it was established in 2001, the highly secure system has worked well and made life much easier for Estonians.

Here in the Caribbean, things are very different. Last month I visited the public hospital for a medical. Over four hours in the same hospital and I was asked for my biographical information no less than four times.

Shouldn’t the systems in this one institution be linked? Wouldn’t that make life easier for us? Now imagine if we could trust the state to manage our data and link all institutions: hospital visits, passport appointments and even death and birth registry wouldn’t require long lines and packed manila envelopes.

So, why do the inefficiencies remain? A recent conversation among Caribbean leaders and former President Ilves provided some answers. The Inter-American Development Bank is partnering with regional governments as they use the tools of technology to transform their societies. Executive members of the IDB also participated in the discussion where it was found that the political will must be in place to initiate a change as big as this. Not only is it a huge investment for any state, it requires leaders in the region to make decisions that may, at first, be unpopular. During the discussion, President Ilves recalled the interest groups who opposed Estonia’s digital thrust, but who now claim the benefits.

For Estonia, those benefits have included more revenue due to increased efficiency in tax collection; less corruption as all public records are openly available; a safer state as crime detection is aided by access to information; and the overall ease of doing business with the state. Here in the region, Jamaica is leading the way in the creation of unique digital identities for all citizens. The parliament recently passed the National Identification and Registration Act. It’s a move that Prime Minister Andrew Holness admits has cost a few political points but he maintains the system will be especially important to improving crime detection rates on the island. He says “each citizen should be known to the state so that we can properly plan and provide.”

The other main issue for Caribbean implementation is trust. Citizens need to be assured that their information is secure. But with documents leaking here and there, it’s not surprising that people are mistrustful of government institutions. Yet, it can be argued that the state already has access to citizens’ confidential information. However, up to now, in many instances, the information has been stored in paper format, with archaic organisation and without connectivity among institutions. Given these circumstances, there might be an even greater risk of breaches of confidentiality.

So, what is the solution? According to Ilves, the solution is simply to show people that it makes their lives easier. No one likes standing in line or undetected crime and if citizens see that their daily lives can be improved, bit by bit, they will buy in. There must also be a consistent communications strategy, to reassure populations that this is a move in the right direction. Transparency in the process doesn’t hurt either; say what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Up to this point, it all seemed like a choice: leave things the way they are or go the way of Estonia. It is not, though. The global pace of digital advancement requires states to use the tools of technology to combat issues that plague them. In the case of the Caribbean, our response to natural disasters has proven to be a major problem. It can be argued that we must design our own solutions to these problems. Crime and violence, corruption and low productivity are also issues for our territories. We won’t be able to confront these and other problems unless we innovate in a highly competitive environment, one in which just being a citizen doesn’t require hours waiting in line.

Golda Lee-Bruce is the Deputy Head of News at CNC3. She was recently asked by the IDB to moderate a discussion of regional leaders on the digital transformation of Caribbean societies.

The Estonian example

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