An Interview with Ott Velsberg, Government Chief Data Officer, Government of Estonia

"The next step we're thinking of is how do we make the government itself work in the background... if you are a citizen eligible for a service, then we shouldn't require that extra bureaucratic step between you getting that service."
 

At just 28, Estonia’s Chief Data Officer, Ott Velsberg, offers a tantalising prospect of what digital native leadership brings to one of the world’s most advanced eGovernments. We speak with Velsberg on what innovation and transformation look like at the bleeding edge of Europe's digital-first governments.

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FST Government:
Estonia is widely hailed amongst the world’s most advanced digital governments, beginning its eGovernment journey way back in the 1990s. What unique conditions inspired Estonia's progressive approach to digital innovation?

Velsberg: I can tell you from my background, I was born around the time that Estonia got its independence back. What we understood early on is that we already had technical skills within the country, but little in the way of technology. We initiated digital reforms and we quickly established collaboration with the private sector. We introduced internet to schools, e-taxing and so forth. Internet banking also became a thing; you could authenticate yourself with internet banking and authenticate yourself.

Early collaboration with the private sector was key. And from then on it was a really quick decision that we needed to invest in this area – that’s seen us get to where we are today. I think most citizens don't even imagine their lives without eGovernment. More than 80 per cent of our citizens use different e-services each month. At the same time, the reason why it's only 80 per cent is that there are certain people that just don't use any government services at all. We see that that the use of e-services becomes more and more prevalent when you get older – after 18 years of age, when students are finishing secondary school, they’re checking their exam results online; that brings people into the government's sphere more and more as they start to make use of eGovernment services. From then on, you can see that the use of different services actually increases by years.


FST Government: While one expects younger citizens to actively engage with digital government, are you also seeing increased engagement among older, perhaps less 'digitally savvy' citizens?

Velsberg: Technically savvy doesn't mean they don’t use e-services; this is a common misconception. In Estonia, for example, if you ever go to a pharmacy to purchase a prescription, using your ID card to verify yourself, you're actually already using e-services in the background: they check what drugs the doctor has written out for you, whether you’re eligible to buy them, how much of a discount you should get, and so on. Using e-services doesn't always mean that you need to go online. And I guess the next step we're thinking of is how do we make the government itself work in the background; you won’t even need to go online to receive a service in that sense from the government. For instance, if you have a clean driving record with no traffic violations and you want to teach others (a clean record is a requirement to instruct drivers in Estonia) then, in the future, you shouldn't need to ask the government for a permit, we’ll just give it to you automatically. The idea is that, if you are a citizen eligible for a service, then we shouldn't require that extra bureaucratic step between you getting that service. If we can already see that we need to pay you ‘X’ amount for a social welfare scheme, then we should just do that; we shouldn't ask the citizen to go fill in extra forms.

I think this is the best part of digital government, where you, as a citizen, no longer need to actively engage with the government. And if this becomes a reality, then we’ll no longer need to think about people who are not so technically savvy.


FST Government: Data has become an indispensable commodity for digital government advancement. As GCDO, what are some of your current priorities for the country's eGovernment, particularly in leveraging the country's vast data repositories?

Velsberg: As chief data officer, I look at everything that's related to data. One side of that is, of course, data science – the practical use of data. From that side, artificial intelligence (AI) has become most prominent, but it's really about machine learning (ML). Last year, the government had, depending on the precise period in question, three to four AI use cases live within the public sector. Right now, we have 23 AI use cases. By next year, we hope to have at least 50. This is something that we’ve worked on really hard.

We have different initiatives to support the progressive uptake of AI throughout the government; for instance, core AI components – things that both the private the public sectors can use free of charge. This is one area that we are working on. Our second primary focus is on data governance. We are currently in the process of evolving our national statistics institute (Statistics Estonia) into a data governance agency – one that holds all the necessary knowledge, skills, and support for other ministries and agencies within the country. As part of that, we are working on data quality, metadata, semantics and so forth. We also introducing data stewards across various agencies and ministries who are responsible for the quality and description of data, as well as the sharing of data to both public and different institutions.


FST Government: Where do you feel are the gaps in the country’s current eGovernment framework?

Velsberg: Certainly, one area that Estonia has been lagging in is open data. One of the problems lies in the way our government agencies exchange data between themselves. We currently use X-Road, which is a data exchange layer. In other countries where they don’t have this kind of mechanism, they use an open framework to share data between agencies. They may not have considered it ‘open data’ in the formal sense, but it was ‘open data’ in all but name. In our case, there was previously no need to share data between government institutions using open data; it was only the citizens and companies that wanted to use it. So, for a long time, open data was lagging. But within the last year, we've more than doubled the amount of data available to the public, so we are really trying to make great strides to advance open data in Estonia as well.


FST Government: Open data sharing regimes, particularly between agencies and states, present a direct challenge to longstanding privacy protections. How is Estonia balancing the push to seamlessly share data whilst upholding citizens' inherent right to privacy?

Velsberg: It's really about understanding and identifying whether some kind of private information is involved or not. We try to make it easier for different stakeholders to decide – but it's hard, I'm not going to lie. The easiest answer is always: if it contains private information about citizens, don't publish it without asking our data protection agency. This is just a general guideline. Also, I’d like to point out, what we’re doing right now is that, if there is an interest from the private sector or from the citizen, only then will we actually publish data. We call it an ‘on-demand process'. So, if there is a demand, then we'll do everything possible from our side to ensure that interested stakeholders get access to that data one way or another.


FST Government: Speaking at the FST Government NSW event earlier this year, fellow Estonian Government representative Andrus Kaarelson spoke of the push to deliver predictive e-services – ones that proactively engage with citizens with the services they need, even before they know they need them. Whilst still in its infancy, can you offer some practical examples of Estonia’s early forays into predictive eGovernment?

Velsberg: We learned very quickly the tremendous benefits that predictive AI can offer to us. Take employment, for example. We are able to profile people looking for jobs by using the information we already have on them; through this data, we can already profile job-seekers to more than 80 per cent accuracy. This then allows us to understand where they should work and offer better employment recommendations, meaning they are less likely to change jobs in the next six months. We can also better target how individuals can be retrained or recommend training courses to help them become a more valuable asset within the jobs market. And we have seen that, using this kind of precision and providing recommendations, they are often more precise than if given by a government employee, so it actually allows us to make people's lives, in general, better off.


FST Government: AI and ML are the backbone of predictive digital government. How effectively is the government leveraging these technologies to deliver on the next generation of eGov initiatives?

Velsberg: As mentioned, last year there were only four of those predictive or AI solutions in place within government. Today, we have 23 live, with close to 14 ongoing projects. We can already see that by the end of this year, close to eight more projects will launch. So there is definitely high uptake of these technologies and I credit this to the way these small projects have been delivered so far. Every time someone sees a value, it generates more interest.


FST Government: While no doubt still a leader, Estonia is fast being challenged as the world’s preeminent eGovernment innovator. How will the country maintain its status at the vanguard of digital government innovation?

From making the government function in the background, providing seamless proactive services, real-time economy, industry 4.0, data embassy, personalised medicine and so forth – we always think how to be above the curve, to consider the next possible way to make Estonia a better place to live.


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Don't miss Ott Velsberg's featured international keynote presentation, Exploring Privacy, Trust and Data Governance in a Digital Society, at the FST Government Australia conference in Canberra on 20 November, 2019. Register now to secure your place!