Learning Digital Lessons From Estonia

Estonia's CIO Taavi Kotka

Over 500 people filled the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre Monday for the start of the fourth Big Data Congress.

The event is about taking big data beyond the buzzword and finding new ways to use the technology in everything from medicine to forestry to agriculture to public services.

The Big Data Congress is organized by Saint John-based technology company T4G. Its CEO Geoff Flood believes that capitalizing on the opportunities presented by big data is critical to creating badly needed economic growth in the Maritimes.

“There’s a future here for us I think – building jobs and employment and doing exciting things and taking on great challenges,” he says. “I don’t think there are too many other answers. I think this is a strong one.”

One of the day’s keynote speakers was Taavi Kotka, the Estonian government’s Chief Information Officer. A successful technology entrepreneur, he was wooed to the government role while waiting out a “non-compete” provision from the sale of his company.

Estonia, a former Soviet republic, became independent in 1991. With a sparse population and the wrenching challenges of post-communism life, it had little choice but to find new, better ways to provide services to its people.

“You can’t have a government official in every small village. You have to force people to serve themselves,” says Kotka. “You push people to use the internet and develop all of kinds of e-services.”

Today the small country, with a population only 1.3 million people, is recognized as one of the most digitally advanced nations in the world.

In Estonia every citizen has one unique identifier – their digital name. “I am the same person in all databases,” says Kotka. With that one digital identity, “you can start connecting data and start building any kind of service. The objects are the same in all different systems. And that’s the baseline.”

“When you start building this stuff, people start wanting more,” he says. Digital services reduce the number of what Kotka calls “hassles” most citizens in places like New Brunswick face in dealing with government bureaucracy – long lines at government offices, complicated processes and filling in endless forms that need to be signed and faxed. And who has a fax machine in 2016?


Taavi Kotka and New Brunswick technology advocate David Alston.

In Estonia for example, filing taxes  takes about 5 to 7 clicks on a website, and around two minutes to complete.

Still, despite its success Estonia faces challenges. It has some of the same demographic pressures facing the Maritimes. It needs more people and skilled workers.

Kotka began helping address this issue by creating Estonian e-residency. A citizen from another country can access Estonian services like forming companies, banking, digitally signing documents and contracts, and payment processing. Becoming an e-resident gives companies and individuals access to the common market of the European Union, of which Estonia is a member. It’s great for what Kotka terms “location independent” companies and freelancers who want to find new markets.

(Want to become an e-resident of Estonia? You can do it here.)

Kotka calls this Government as a Service, riffing off the popular Software as a Service (SaaS) model. “It increases the population through digital citizenship. It cost nothing because they use exactly the same systems built for Estonians,” he says.

E-residents created 1000 new companies in Estonia from 2015 to 2016.

Kotka sees the same opportunity for New Brunswick.

“More and more people want to provide their services globally. So to enter into different markets they need some kind of entry point,” he told Huddle after his presentation. “If Europeans or Asians want to enter the North American market, what’s their entry point, Delaware or New Brunswick? There is no choice at the moment, it’s only Delaware.”

“So you need to be providing them the ability to create and run a company, have a bank account here to do transactions, and it’s hassle free. And when I say hassle free I really mean that the engineer who is doing engineering all day can run the company, it’s so easy that they can run it, that they love to run it,” he says.

“If you can provide that level of service they will choose you.”