U.S. thinking about open data is outdated, according to Taavi Kotka, CIO of Estonia, one of the first countries to go fully digital in its government information.

“The way we talk about open data, especially here in the U.S., at least how it seems to me, is government takes information form the databases and puts it in some kind of data portals. It’s important, it’s extremely important, but it’s slow,” said Kotka. “Open data in the meaning that you’re actually going to take data out from the database and put it somewhere in the portal, it’s just so last century.”

He explained that digital governments rely on a fully standardized way of storing and using data, as well as a single way of identifying citizens across a variety of fields.

“We only use this one unique identifier for the same person,” said Kotka, adding that this ID is used for government, health care, and private sector transactions.

“It was clear that we can’t physically serve the people,” Kotka said of the motivation to transition to fully digital records. “It was quite clear since the beginning that we have to rely on computers.”

Kotka said that part of his country’s success in transitioning into a digital government was to take radical steps that moved the country forward technologically and quickly.

“When you have two or three radical reforms, if they are successful, the people of Estonia start to trust you,” he said. One such radical reform was to require all teachers to record their grades in an online format in 2002. Teachers were told that they wouldn’t get paid until all their grades were online. According to Kotka, the transition took only two months.

Estonia also had to cross the hurdle of asking businesses to provide the government with all their financial information, partially to help prevent cases of fraud.

“So basically, please give us your business secrets,” Kotka joked. “But if you think about it, you trust banks. Banks see this information.”

Estonia also had to cultivate the people’s trust in taking and storing their data for widespread use.

“You have to give something back to the people, and we started with taxes,” he said, adding that Estonians can now get quick online access to what they owe or will be receiving back in taxes, with a series of buttons to click through to make payments. “When you give those things back to the people, they start trusting you.”

Estonia is also cultivating trust by providing people with visibility into their data and who is accessing it.

“Doctors can see my data. That’s a normal thing. And I can also see which doctors accessed my data,” Kotka said. Doctors who improperly access a patient’s data run the risk of losing their ability to practice medicine.

Due to the effectiveness that open data has provided his country, Kotka encouraged the audience to become “digital Estonians” by becoming a part of the country without ever physically having to go there.

“If they don’t want to come to us physically, they don’t have to,” he said. “We hope at least some of you will become digital Estonians.”

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Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Cybersecurity, FedRAMP, GSA, Congress, Treasury, DOJ, NIST and Cloud Computing.