Since then, around 50 other countries have organised their own hackathons, some of them working directly with the Estonian organizers using the same name, "Hack the crisis". Four initiatives developed during the event have already been implemented in the country.
1. An interactive dashboard to monitor the statistical evolution of the epidemic
A website called KoroonaKaart with an interactive map and a dashboard was launched. It allows any user to follow the evolution of the epidemic. Easy to consult and continuously updated, it offers real-time monitoring of numerous indicators, including the number of confirmed cases (at the national level and by county), the number of tests carried out, as well as the number of deaths. The dashboard, which also exists as an application, has been developed on the Estonian government’s open data platform.
2. The Suve chatbot for responding to citizens' questions
The chatbot, developed at the request of the government, answers the most frequently asked questions about the epidemic, in Estonian and in English. This artificial intelligence service ensures that the information shared by the automatic responses is updated instantaneously and eliminates the need for users to perform searches. From a budgetary standpoint, the chatbot costs less than the multiple call centers that would need to be set up across different departments.
Upon its development, the same chatbot was embedded on many websites: on the government’s site, the emergency page, and the Estonian information site for foreign investors, for example. It allows users to ask questions at any stage of their search and get a comprehensive answer without having to go to another site. Another advantage is that the number of questions that the chatbot can answer is constantly increasing. Unanswered questions - with a priority placed on the most frequently asked - are forwarded to the eeBot team, which works directly with the government's communication department. Each developer has been invited to participate in the improvement of the tool thanks to a website that displays its main technical features.
3. An online questionnaire for the medical self-assessment of users
The Ministry of Social Affairs has created an online questionnaire allowing anyone to make a preliminary assessment of their own medical situation and receive specific advice on the steps to take.
By answering this questionnaire, individuals can also choose to share their information with the government, allowing for improvement of their data and thus for better monitoring of the evolution of the epidemic.
4. The COVID-help platform to organize volunteer care-giving
The Estonian start-up Zelos, a volunteer team management platform created in 2019, has developed a platform called COVID-help, which connects elderly people in need of special assistance with a volunteer.
From a technological point of view, Zelos operates according to the classic Software-as-a-Service (Saas) business model entirely hosted in a cloud. In less than forty-eight hours, the Zelos teams connected the IT system (backend) of their service to a dashboard designed by Trello, a famous online management tool. They then designed an API (Application Programming Interface) which lets each government website or application (frontend) incorporate this service into theirs.
The system developed by Zelos manages the inventory of the requests filed either online or via a specifically-created call center, and organizes the work of the volunteers. An elderly person in need of someone to run errands can thus find a neighbor able to do so. More than 2,000 volunteers throughout Estonia have registered on this platform.
The examples presented here are just a sample of the many digital initiatives launched in recent weeks. In just a few days, the Estonian government also made it possible for every employee to obtain a digital medical certificate so as not to overwhelm doctors’ offices or emergency services. Similarly, a platform has been set up to enable companies hardest hit by the economic crisis to put their employees to work at other companies in need of workers.
The Three Lessons to Learn from Estonia
The Estonian government’s success in implementing efficient digital public services has been well established. Analyzing the Estonian case highlights three lessons.
- The first well-known lesson is the need to begin a long-term digital transformation. For any technological solution to work perfectly - no matter how powerful and intelligent it may be - it must fit into a mature digital ecosystem. It also has to have a population who knows and trusts in digital tools, whether they are developers, designers, administrators, or end-users.
The development of information technology in Estonian public administration and society over the last 25 years has been the subject of numerous academic studies and reports. Tallinn, aware of the soft power of its success, has also been increasing its communication in this field, never missing any opportunity to showcase its achievements on the numerous websites of its institutions - some of the information in this article itself is based on it.
In Estonia, tax declarations have been possible online since 2000. The following year the public data management system X-Road, still in production today, was launched. Its architecture has made possible the many initiatives that launch in Estonia every year. In 2002, the digital ID-card system was launched; it gradually became a global authentication system. ID-card has enabled citizens to carry out almost all their administrative acts online. All Estonian public services have gradually been digitized, from medical services to education, e-policing to cadastral databases - with one exception: marriage. More than just the rapid innovations that the country has been able to create since the beginning of the epidemic, it is this efficient and intelligently-designed public information system that explains much of Estonia's health and administrative resilience.
- The virtues of the second lesson that the Estonian example inspires are immediately recognized by anyone: the importance of user experience (UX). This notion, employed by all companies wishing to interact with their customers through digital channels, refers to how easily websites, applications, and software can be used, as well as how quickly the information or service they are looking for can be found. Unlike many sites of national governments or international organizations, the vast majority of Estonian government web pages are quite user-friendly. In a digital world where hundreds of millions of sites can be accessed in a matter of seconds, UX is probably the most important factor in how successful a website is, i.e. its adoption by users.
Immediately launching the website, KoroonaKaart, the primary source of data on the evolution of the epidemic, has certainly proven to have many advantages for the Estonian government. Transparency has strengthened the trust between administrations and citizens. The site plays the role of a justice of the peace in the public debate and thus limits the amount of possible controversies. Ultimately, each citizen can follow the precise evolution of infection in their region on a daily basis, adapting travel decisions accordingly. It is not just the publication of this data that makes all this possible, but rather the simplicity of UX, and the ability of each user to utilise the information provided. The same data online on an Excel spreadsheet, on the margins of a complicated website, would have been consulted considerably less, and would therefore be considerably less useful.
- The third and final lesson seems so obvious that we are used to hearing about its merits without actually being able to see it: the platform model and the fruitful cooperation between the public and private sectors. Hackathons are probably the best examples of the effectiveness of collaborative models and platforms wherein students, developers, government officials, and business leaders all exchange ideas with one other. By organising an online collective brainstorming event during the very first days of the emergency, the Estonian government avoided long weeks of bureaucratic red tape that could have yielded uncertain results. In just a few hours, several ideas for the common good were identified and a first analysis of their technical and functional feasibility was carried out by the many experts participating in the event. A company like Zelos was thus able to take advantage of the initiative’s media exposure to demonstrate the effectiveness of its solutions and make them useful to everyone.
The demographic factor for a country with only 1.3 million inhabitants partly explains the success of this mode of collaboration. Nonetheless, this type of successful partnership between public authorities and private companies is also the result of long-standing investments in a solid and transparent public data management system. It enjoys a high level of public confidence, as well as a legal and regulatory framework suited to it, and is constantly evolving to respond to each new technology.
These various innovations have not had miraculous effects in and of themselves on the evolution of the epidemic. Faced with the accelerating rate of infection, Estonia, like most other European countries, was forced to impose lockdown measures that were costly to its economy. Nevertheless, these various digital solutions, developed successfully in just a few days, have enabled the public authorities to provide citizens with accurate and continually-updated information, and to resolve new problems, most of them due to lockdown measures. When the epidemic is over, it seems that these digital tools - among other factors - will have let Estonia avoid the lack of organization seen in other countries.