I went to Estonia, and saw the future.

Written by Chris Fabian

In the 25 years since its independence, the government of Estonia has implemented and scaled a set of systems for digital ‘citizenship’ that are unparalleled – at least in any other country that I’ve worked with.

UNICEF Ne’er-do-wells from 3 country offices, 2 regional offices, and headquarters descend on Estonia.

Last week, I was privileged to be part of a study tour to Estonia – with several UNICEF colleagues from countries as varied as Thailand, Kazakhstan, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – to see what we could learn from Estonia as we work to provide access to services to the world’s most vulnerable children.

When we talk about services, we are speaking of the things many people in a connected world take for granted.  The ability to get an education that helps you achieve your dreams.  The ability to report your teacher for sexual abuse and have a resolution.  The ability to go to a health center or hospital and know that the essential drugs you need are available.  The ability to be born with an identity. These are basic rights all children should have.

Beautiful Estonia
Tallinn it like it is: the old and new of Estonia.

In our world, though, a young person is often denied these rights. They face increasing uncertainty and chaos, whether because of global disasters like climate change or because they are denied services due to local infrastructure or displacement.

Our trip wanted to see what was happening in this beautiful Baltic state and how Estonia provides these services to its citizens.  We found that the Estonian digital services package demonstrates a vital look at what can be, if we build technology that is smart, modular, and at the service of people.

An Estonian gets a unique 11-digit number at birth – their “second name” – made up of their date of birth, birth order on the day, gender, and a checksum.  With this single ID, an Estonian can access digital services from health records to school information, from pension information to tax payment. Data and information belong to the individual, and the government ministries act as a set of trusted services, each working in their area of expertise, and each providing necessary information, upon demand, without paperwork or delay.

Personal Identification Code
How Estonian Chris is generated.

The urgency for these services is real. It’s September of 2016.  One out of three children in the world has no formal identity and lacking this, they often do not have access to services, and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Additionally, a recent UNICEF report states, “[a]round the world today, 50 million children have migrated across borders or been forcibly displaced within their own countries. More than half – a shocking 28 million – have been uprooted by horrific conflicts.”.

The UNICEF Office of Innovation has been supporting our 135 country offices in their efforts to bridge the space between a world that is connected and full of opportunity for its population – and one which is not.  We use simple open-source tools to help governments build the systems their citizens need.  But our team is new, and often our tools follow a specific need.  We have built systems to reduce the stock out of essential drugs in health centers in Uganda using SMS. For example, stock-outs of ACTs for malaria reduced from 60% in 2012 to 13% in 2014 with an estimated 132,000 children under 5 treated per year.

In Uganda, UNICEF has worked with the government to use a simple smartphone (and the open-source software package MobileVRS) to increase birth registration from 17% in 2005 to 68% in 2015.

A national-scale exponential increase in birth registration in Uganda using UNICEF’s MobileVRS system

In Sierra Leone, we have used U-Report, which now has more than 2.5 million users in 27 countries, to allow young people to report sexual violence in schools and link those reports to action and response by the government.

Here are three trends that we saw during our Estonia trip. which give us a sense of where we can aim for as we build open-source technology at the service of young people.

1) Digital Identity – connections between institutions

If I’m Estonian, I am Chris Fabian.  And I am 38004183338.  My name allows me to interact with people in a normal, charming Estonian way.  My number allows me access to everything else.  With that number and a digital identity card (or my mobile phone), I can log onto a government portal of services to  access any government service and see my data. Most importantly, I own my data, and I can control where it appears.

Lots of people use Estonia’s e-services

This digital identity integration reminded me a bit of Azerbaijan’s Asan Xidmet service – which is a physical portal – “one door, many windows” – to government services, but in an Estonian version, every window is a digital one.

Having a single ID allows government systems to talk to each other.  One area of work (social welfare) might request information on the number of dependents (health registry) – and instead of needing to send over a huge file, the Estonian system simply queries with your ID number, and gets the information it needs, on demand.

2) Tax and Customs

Entrepreneurship is often stymied by systems that make it difficult to start a company, unacceptable to fail, or impossible to get the loans or legal advice that is needed at a very early stage.  The Estonian Tax and Customs office has taken a new approach to facilitating the work of startups, by using digital government services to reduce friction and just make things easier.

Establishing a company
Look how much time Estonian Chris would save. Lots.

For example, Estonian Chris (38004183338) doesn’t have to go to five different places to pay taxes.  The Tax and Customs Office looks at my bank accounts, all linked by my 11 digit number, and calculates the amount of tax I owe.  I get a notification on my phone.  “Estonian Chris (38004183338) – you owe 4,000Euro in taxes.  (Pay Now) (Object).”   I can easily pay, and if I have an objection, I can file that online.  Sounds pretty civilized, right?

Tax Declaration
Note that these tech up-takes seem to have a similar curve (Estonian and Ugandan birth registration)

The Tax Authority is the fifth most trusted institution in the country. And now that they’ve essentially put themselves out of the business of stamping paper forms and double certifying documents, they’ve moved on to provide services to businesses to help them do better business in Estonia.  The work plan for the Authority looks more like the support package of a startup accelerator than a government institution.

The Tax and Customs office treats businesses as opportunities and looks to help startups grow big and fierce.
The Tax and Customs office treats businesses as opportunities and looks to help startups grow big and fierce.

3) Privacy and trust

Estonia's Egov
Fiachra gets e-arrested. Wivina looks on and laughs. All of Estonia’s police can access the e-services platforms for faster action

Since I own my data, I can also see when anyone (like a police officer or government official) looks into my records. I know what they looked at, and when.

Estonian Chris (38004183338) would get an alert that tells me that someone has looked at my records.  I can then make sure that’s a legitimate use of my data, or file a complaint if not. 

Contrast this to a situation where all data is held in different buildings, filing cabinets, and servers, and where the end user (to whom that data belongs) has no visibility into who is ruffling through their records.

The Estonian system operates over TCP/IP – over “the public internet.”  This means that it is as stable as the Internet, but also, potentially, as vulnerable to snooping.  However, information sent to ministries is encrypted and never tells the full story of an identity.  Contrast this to sending PDFs via email, printing out large tax documents with identifying information, or asking a doctor or teacher to send an email with patient or student records.

“Trust” in this context means something different.  Estonian Chris (38004183338) has a large amount of trust in the government of Estonia.  But it’s not the same trust that he has in his mother or sister.  It’s trust in the sense that he trusts his phone to notify him when he gets a call or a door to unlock when the right key is used.  It is trust that a set of protocols will connect and perform an expected action.  It is not an emotional trust.

This trust (in protocols doing what they are supposed to) is grounded in fact.  Other than one major cyber attack in 2007 the Estonian digital government has been running without downtime.  This is because it is not one huge system, but rather a set of connected nodes.  Each ministry or area of functionality handles “its own business.”   This is similar to how banks, around the world, can perform different transactions with customers and reconcile those transactions globally, without (necessarily) being so connected that closing one branch office of one bank in one country affects the global economy.  But it’s better than banks. The fundamental unit of transaction in Estonia is the citizen, the human, and the number that identifies them.  This means that the systems which are provided are growing and adapting constantly, as the government sees new opportunities to connect and support its population.


These systems can be scaled and adapted to other contexts.  If we can model our open source platforms on the experience and learnings of Estonia, we can create connected, responsive national information systems.

Integrated Network
Estonia’s X-roads protocols pass information between ministries, but don’t force everyone to follow the same internal data formats

Estonia started by providing identity and then extended to health.  After health, they added other “line” ministries (education, social services) to the network of “nodes” that were providing data to each other, and asking questions of each other.  As each “node” came online, new sets of services came with it.  This is very different from building a top-down system where every interaction is defined beforehand.  We have built similar “nodes” in several countries – mTrac, eduTrac, and other systems running of RapidPro are providing real-time information to specific parts of the government.   We can begin to link them together and watch as those linkages add layers of value to a citizen.

Welcome to the future
Thanks to the Estonian E-Governance Academy for letting us take a few steps into the future.

We can also work with the concept of an access number – a way for anyone to access services and to have a record of those services – in times of emergency or displacement.  When refugees travel across borders and fill out new forms with each country, they lose context and time.  A child’s education history might not be recorded.  Health records lost.  It becomes difficult to get a job or connect back to normal life at the end of an arduous journey. Estonia begins to show us how these various paths can be connected – not by building a grand system that does everything, but by creating the open-source and interoperable nodes that run off of existing infrastructure – the internet – to provide secure transactions to those who are most desperately in need of services.

– – – – Thank you to The E-governance Academy (eGA) for facilitating this study tour. What we learned about Estonia’s digital services should help UNICEF and partner governments accelerate the effort to scale mobile and digital solutions that address the most pressing challenges affecting children. eGA trains and advises leaders and stakeholders on how to increase government efficiency and to improve democratic processes through using information and communications technology (ICT). eGA has trained 3000 officials from more than 50 countries and led or participated in more than 60 international ICT projects on the national, local and organizational levels.

– – – – This study trip was done with Wivina Belmonte (Regional Director – East Asia and Pacific), David McLoughlin (Deputy Regional Director – Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States), Fiachra McAsey (Deputy Representative – Kazakhstan), Murat Sahin (Deputy Representative – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), Thomas Davin (Representative – Thailand), Clara Palau (Project Manager, Office of Innovation, NYHQ) and Christopher Fabian (Senior Advisor, Office of Innovation, NYHQ).

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