An Information and Communication Tech trip to Estonia


Report by Daphne Riksen on the EUSJA study trip to Tallinn and Tartu, May 14–17, 2014

Estonia is a special country regarding the use of ICT, Information and Communication Technologies. Soon after its independence in 1991 (four months before the final collapse of the Soviet Union), the new government chose to use computers and the Internet on a large scale. At the time of the EUSJA study trip in mid-May, Estonia’s citizens were able to vote online in the European Parliamentary elections. Voting online was already happening for the sixth time. At the local elections in 2013, 25% of the voters used their smart phone or an Internet browser to cast their vote.

Another striking example of Estonia’s digital excellence is the e-ID Card. Introduced in 2003, it is used to access all kinds of information, such as data that government agencies have collected about you or your health records. The same card is also used in public transport, online banking, the library and as a loyalty card for shopping. Apart from all this, Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, is the country where Skype was developed by three Estonians, a Swede and a Dane. Skype itself led to many other ICT start-up companies.

In short: Estonia is a unique ICT country. Reason enough for my fellow Dutch colleague Bennie Mols and myself to participate in this EUSJA trip, which was financed by the European Union Regional Development Fund and organised by the Estonian Research Council and the Estonian Association of Science Journalists.

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The programme starts on Wednesday, May 14 in the evening with a visit to the Tallinn TV Tower. This 314 meter tower is internationally famous from the time of the Soviet coup attempt in 1991, when radio operators risked their lives to keep the transmitters working. Currently, at a height of 165 meters, there is an observation deck and a restaurant. Because of the beautiful spring weather we have a free view of the Baltic Sea, the Estonian nature surrounding the tower, and the city of Tallinn (with a population of 400,000, Estonia’s biggest). We meet our fellow science journalists from Spain, Greece, Latvia, Russia, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Finland and of course Estonia, where 20 science journalists are united in the Estonian Association of Science Journalists.

The next day we have an early start at the Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia’s only university of technology, where we are met by computer science pioneer Enn Tõugu. He gives us a short introduction to the history of his field, which the Russians used to call cybernetics. Subsequently we attend a number of lectures on speech technology, the use of crowd sourcing and big data (look for example at sightsmap.com for an overview of visually interesting travel locations based on pictures from Panoramio and information from Wikipedia, Wikitravel and Google Maps). We also hear about Estonia’s experience with cyber riots in 2007, when web sites of the Parliament, ministries, banks and the media were attacked after the relocation of the Bronze Soldier, a Soviet-era statue, from the city centre of Tallinn.

In a neighbouring building, we visit the offices of Skype. Here we hear the latest developments since Microsoft took over Skype in 2011. Immediately after that we go by bus to TransferWise, founded in 2010 by (amongst others) Skype’s first employee. Using this service, it is much cheaper to transfer money to other countries. At the moment, €4 million is transferred daily by the users of TransferWise. This company aims to change the system of international money transfer the same way Skype changed the system of making international phone calls.

Our second day ends with a guided tour of the old town of Tallinn ‒ which is a UNESCO world heritage site ‒ and a very nice dinner at the Town Hall Square.

On Friday we take the bus to Tartu, 185 kilometres to the south-east of Tallinn. This city near the Russian border with 100,000 inhabitants has the oldest, biggest and most famous university of the country (founded in 1632 by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden). The bus ride is a nice opportunity to talk about the situation in Ukraine, which has its impact on Estonia, but also on Finland.

The Institute of Computer Science of the University of Tartu has 700 students in computer science, who are already in their first year very attractive for ICT companies because Estonia is in high need for these professionals. Although the faculty has only existed for 15 years, it has already led to 45 ICT spin-off companies, and its researchers work together with big multinationals. We learn more about the choices Estonia has made in order to become digitally excellent in ICT.

At the Institute of Government and Politics we get to know more about online voting and the research that can be done on the impact of Internet voting on, for instance, political participation. This research has made clear that online voting does not improve the turnout. It also shows that it is no longer used mainly by early adopters or young people.

Still in Tartu, we visit the Estonian Genome Project, which has collected the genetic material and medical and background information of more than 50,000 inhabitants (5% of the population). By analysing the material from these donors, Estonia hopes to be able to predict their risk for chronic diseases and to improve public health in Estonia. In the coming years, all inhabitants between 35 and 65 years old will be asked to join the Estonian biobank on a voluntary basis. A yearly poll shows that only 20% of them are not willing to participate.

The biobank functions as a screening programme, for instance by combining the genetic risk of type II diabetes of people over 45 with their BMI. When necessary, the risk is communicated to the general practitioner of the participant. It is hoped and expected that lower health expenditures will take care of the cost of the biobank within 10 years.

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At the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences ICT is used for a totally different kind of research. They use mobile positioning data provided by telecom providers to research ethnic segregation. Estonia’s largest minority is the Russian speaking part of the population (25%). It is not difficult to select this group because the preferred language on their mobile phones is Russian and they receive their invoices in Russian. From research on the anonymised data it can be concluded that there are differences in mobility between Russian speaking people and other Estonians. For instance, the Russian minority does not leave the city as much as other Estonians, nor do they visit other countries as much. There is also a difference in daily and weekly rhythms.

As the end of this busy second day we visit Cybernetica, the company that developed ‒ amongst other things ‒ the digital infrastructure X-Road for the government in 2002. This X-Road guarantees the safe transport of data between users and not only government agencies, but also thousands of other organisations.

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Picture: Liis Livin / Estonian Research Council

On Saturday morning we visit the Estonian ICT Demo Center in Tallinn, where we are given the opportunity to talk to a representative of the Estonanion Information Systems Authority (responsible for solving cyber incidents, amongst other things), the chairman of the e-voting committee and a representative of the Estonian Internet Society. Online voting is a much discussed topic this week because of an article in the Guardian on research by American scientists pointing at alleged weaknesses in the Estonian voting system. The three people we talk to are convinced this is a PR stunt of the Centre Party, and explain to us that the article is based on the assumption that every computer in Estonia is contaminated with a virus.

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Picture: Liis Livin / Estonian Research Council

We discuss how it is possible that Estonia is so successful in using and adopting ICT, which is visible in e-voting and the availability of a great number of online governmental services. Are Estonians not afraid of privacy issues? The answer is that there are special laws which make misuse punishable and of course there are security measures in place. Data transported over the X-Road is encrypted; there is a reward of €30,000 for the person who manages to break the encryption. Government agencies store their own data, which means that there does not exist a single, very large and therefore vulnerable database. A user portal collects all relevant data through the safe X-Road and shows it to you only after you gain access using your e-ID Card, which has a double pin code. This portal shows information varying from school diplomas and health records to tax and land registry. You can also check which public servant has looked at your data. If the access has been inappropriate, this person risks a huge fine.

We end this well organised trip with ‒ again ‒ a wonderful meal, before everyone leaves for the airport or a ferry. Estonia is not only an enthusiastic ICT country, but also a very generous and hospitable country. I have decided where to spend my summer holidays!

Here is an article by Bennie Mols about Estonia’s e-society (in English): Estonia’s e-Society: Visionary or Naive?

Daphne Riksen is a freelance science journalist in the Netherlands. 

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