Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

What India and the UK can learn from Estonia 2.0

16 Apr 2012

Estonia's digital cabinet (via RSLN)

There's an interesting piece in today's Guardian about how Estonia has become an 'internet titan'. Of course, the country is well-known for the success of Skype, but its progress as a digital society is an even more fascinating story. A few things that stood out:

  1. Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online

  2. At the last count, 99% of Estonian bank transfers were online

  3. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000

  4. The government set up the Cyber Defence League, a network of 100 volunteers from the cybersector who, among other roles, will form a kind of territorial army during future [cyber security] strife.

  5. "Every Estonian can see who has visited their data, and they can challenge any suspicious behaviour. In one famous case, a policewoman was caught accessing information about her boyfriend."

Let's take 1-3 first - all things that address efficiency and transparency. Estonia's success, as the article acknowledges, probably has something to do with its size (it has a population of 1.4 million), but the potential benefits of these kinds of initiatives would be huge in a country like India, where the government's scheme to computerise land records (probably the single biggest time hog in Indian courts) has dragged on for more than two decades. For sure, as in Estonia, the Indian government's Aadhaar ID card scheme could be the centrepiece of, and a catalyst for, the improvement of public services. Let's hope so.

But moving beyond strengthening governance, a society needs open access in order to take advantage of digitised public services. Estonia is awash with free WiFi, but in India, the locations that offer free WiFi in cities tend to be limited to relatively new, upscale restaurants and cafes. Outside of large metropolitan areas, it's often a struggle to get a 3G USB modem to pull a strong enough signal to browse the web. While last year a report by two industry bodies trumpeted the fact that India is about to reach the milestone of 100 million regular internet users, it's worth remembering that that's still only 8% of the population - and where government services are concerned, 100% access is the only fair statistic.

If you do find yourself in an area with WiFi in India, you'll notice that the network is always password protected. I asked a Mumbai restaurant proprietor recently why he had bothered to add a password to his network, since his building was surrounded by disused factories, mills and other restaurants who have their own WiFi networks. Why inconvenience your customers with a password? He replied that the municipal council requires proprietors to protect their networks to prevent terrorists from using or exploiting them.

Apart from the fact that terrorists are well used to circumventing security restrictions (and WEP/WPA passwords are hardly top-notch protection), the fear of the cyber threat that underpins it is understandable, particularly in Mumbai. But perhaps instead of a purely defensive posture, Indian authorities can draw some inspiration from Estonia's Cyber Defence League (point 4)? It would be great to see cyber security in India being advanced proactively as a civil society issue, rather than remaining the preserve of cautious and - by reputation at least - Luddite officials.

Point 5 seems to be a fantastic learning point for ID card schemes everywhere - and a reminder that open data should always be a two-way street. In the UK, long-standing skepticism of ID cards due to privacy concerns eventually led in 2011 to David Cameron's government scrapping the ID card scheme begun by the previous Labour government. But what about the two-way Estonian model?

Would anti-ID card groups like No2ID be less concerned if every UK citizen could track when their records were accessed? Giving citizens the chance to 'guide' their government (as an Estonian lecturer quoted by the Guardian puts it) and scrutinise its actions at the level of the individual could be a big step forward for the larger debate around data. Locking down and assuming a defensive posture won't work forever.

Image: RSLN