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Interview with Carmen Raal from e-Estonia Briefing Centre

Digital Transformation Advisor Carmen Raal will present the background and key factors of the process that has elevated her home country – Estonia – to the position of Europe’s digital leader at the Jarná ITAPA 2024 conference. Fulfilling this mission is her passion, and therefore Carmen is very active in spreading best practices so that other countries can achieve a similar level of success.

Estonia is a digital leader not only within the EU but also globally. What are the key factors behind this success?
If I were to highlight the most important aspect of building a digital society, it’s the fact that it’s a team sport. Collaboration between public authorities is crucial, but it’s not enough on its own. The driving force behind innovations is the academic community, while the private sector excels in creating user-centric services. For the rest of the secrets, you’ll have to attend ITAPA and listen to my presentation! 

Are Estonian experiences transferable to other countries? Will you try to inspire Slovakia with best practices at the Jarná ITAPA conference?
While complete copying is not possible, many elements of our digital society – knowledge and technologies – are indeed transferable. Digital transformation today is less about the technologies that already exist and more about the human challenge: uniting all key stakeholders under a common goal. With nearly 30 years of experience, Estonia’s greatest asset is our know-how. I am determined to share the journey of e-Estonia and inspire all ITAPA participants.

One of the questions that arise in this context is security and data protection. How successfully has Estonia built citizens' trust in the state, which holds such a large amount of sensitive data?
For innovations in the public sector, a high-trust society is essential, which requires transparency and security. Thanks to X-Road, our data exchange layer, we can store citizens’ data in a distributed manner. Data requests are logged, and every Estonian has access to their personal data trackers, which provide an overview of how their data has been handled. Our secure eID identification allows for safe access to electronic services – digital verification and providing digital signatures. It also enables secure, confidential data transmission. We also invest heavily in national cyber hygiene, particularly focusing on public sector employees. Estonia has created a collaborative environment where the public and private sectors work closely together to ensure a resilient society.

In your country, not only eGovernment, eHealth, and eEducation but the entire e-Estonia functions perfectly. Does the high level of digital services impact the development of the business environment, the influx of foreign investments, the growth of tourism, or the return of talents from abroad?
Yes, we have moved beyond just offering digital public services. Digitalization has significantly helped us address corruption. If we compare Estonia in the nineties to today, we have transformed into one of the most transparent countries in the world. We have removed various socio-economic barriers to entrepreneurship, making it easy to do business in Estonia. As a result, Estonia boasts the highest number of startups and unicorns (a unicorn is a private startup company valued at over $1 billion – editor’s note) per capita in the world. Finally, the global interest in Estonia’s digital society pleases us. Many want to visit us, meet our experts, and learn how to develop a digital society in their countries.

Which digital service encountered the most stereotypes, and which one’s acceptance surprised you the most personally?
I wouldn’t say we encountered stereotypes. However, being pioneers and doing things for the first time certainly attracts attention, especially from foreigners. In 2005, we became the first country to introduce internet voting at the national level, and to this day, we are the only ones to enable it to such an extent. Since it changes the understanding of participation in a democratic society, we often find ourselves explaining the security measures and necessity of this service. Another example is our data embassy in Luxembourg. We were the first country to back up essential databases outside our physical borders to ensure state continuity even if a critical database in our country was lost. Initially, this raised some doubts, but now many countries are considering similar backups.

Carmen Raal will speak at the Jarná ITAPA 2024 conference in Bratislava on June 18, 2024, within the block on Estonia’s Digital Transformation.

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