Sunday, 20 August 2006

E-Stonia

E-commerce, e-banking, e-government: Estonia has come a long way since it was a Soviet Republic ruled with an iron fist from Moscow.

Today this small Baltic state of 1.4 million people is not only part of NATO and the EU, it’s also leading the way in the cyber world and has attracted attention as the world’s first paperless government.


E-Stonia by barb

Café Moskva is one of the trendiest places in Tallinn’s 14th century old town. With its mix of retro-soviet charm and minimalist design it’s a popular hangout for young Estonians meeting for coffee, enjoying Mediterranean-Baltic fusion meals – or just checking emails.

Jan is a 33-year old architect and doing just that: checking his emails and making a few online payments. Internet is a basic need, he says, just like food and water.

"I need it everywhere, I have internet at home, at both work places. If I’m going to the sauna or skiing of course I don’t have it, but if I’m by car or public transport I always have it."

Just like Jan - more than 60 % of Estonians do all their banking online, and use the internet to do their taxation and other administrative tasks. And even if you don't have internet at home getting online is easy. Pubs, hotel lobbies and gas stations all have wireless internet access and the entire old town of Tallinn has become a WIFI area.


Quite a remarkable high tech transformation for this Baltic country where not long ago you could wait up to four years for a telephone line to be installed. Today Estonia has the same rate of internet usage as Germany, even though the country is still far behind economically.

So, how was this possible? Ivar Tallo one of the driving forces behind Estonia’s internet revolution, identifies several factors:

1. The size - Estonia is small, so it was comparatively easy to introduce the new so called ICT technologies.

2. The end of communism and the sudden change from one system to another also facilitated the introduction of new technologies.

3. The geographic proximity to high-tech Scandinavia was also crucial.

4. The strong political will of Estonia's leaders.

This was probably most important, says Ivar Tallo:

"Estonia is in this ICT a very good example how politics matters. Politics is something dirty and it doesn’t matter. But we cant find any other explanation that the fact that the Estonian government has always prioritized ICT development and not only in words but also backing up with real resources having 1% of the budget over the past 10 years spent on ICT."

Tallo points to a map covered with little dots illustrating all the public internet access points throughout Estonia. Today there are more than 700 such points were Estonians can access the internet free of charge.


But the IT hype doesn’t stop there.

Just a stone throw away from the Café Moskva, in the castle above the medieval town, Estonia's government ministers are deep in discussion during their weekly Thursday meeting. In a beautiful vaulted room overlooking Tallin’s cobbled streets one thing is striking about these meetings: the lack of paper.

The minister are hunched over the flat screens of their silver PCs, making online comments that are beamed to a big screen across from the Prime Minister. The cabinet members are not carrying heavy loads of paper, as all the documents and briefing notes have been prepared electronically, easy to share.

Tex Vertman was one of the government’s first IT advisors and says these online cabinet sessions save the government a lot of time – and money.

"Cost is important and the Estonian government saves annually approximately 200-300.000 Euros only for the copying of the papers, plus human work, time and if some minister can’t participate in a meeting then they can virtually participate in the meeting from another country."

There are many advantages to this e-government, says Ivar Tallo who’s even created an e-governance academy. It raises the efficiency of the government and of the state bureaucracies. It makes the decision making process more transparent to the citizens and also facilitates access to information.

But what about the drawbacks? Ivar Tallo admits that one shouldn’t ignore the dangers:

"The more information we have online by necessity the more danger there is for the identity theft. But we can’t really stop using electricity because someone put his fingers into the electrical wires and gets killed. Yes theses things happen and precautions have to be taken. How many people get killed by cars every year and still we buy and build cars. so, the electronic world it is similar in that sense: if you are careful, if you follow the procedures - it is safe."



So internet savvy Estonians will continue to defend their place in Europe’s cyber elite. The Baltic country is planning to introduce e-voting where anyone can vote from anywhere providing they have access to a computer and the internet. Tallo doubts that this will increase voter participation, but it might attract young people and at least avoid a vote decrease.

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