Next Generation Digital State Research Group at the Department of Software Science at TalTech is a fine example of cooperation. It creates synergies between academia and the public and private sectors. According to Associate Professor Ingrid Pappel, the head of the Research Group, their main aim is to bring cutting-edge technology closer to people. This includes people who use it and implement technological solutions in the public sector. But how do they do it?
Connecting students to real-life problems
NextGen research group started alongside the creation of the e-governance MA program in 2013. This program produces students with a lot of potential and seeks to engage them in solving urgent problems outside academia. Since then, both MA and PhD students have been engaged with cooperative projects with which the leading NextGen group scientists are engaged.
An example of engaging students is the Future of Digital State Hackathon, organised jointly by NextGen Research Group and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (MKM) in October 2023. During two days, students will be able to tackle challenges and problems posed by the Ministry, present the solutions and win prizes. Topics include using voice or gesture commands, AI and blockchain to improve digital public services. The difference between a similar event in the private sector is that Estonian ministries will actually implement winning solutions.
MKM is only one of the public sector organisations that hurl challenges towards the research group. Similarly, The Innovation Team at the Government Office and RIA have been engaged in collaborative projects. With RIA, for example, the NextGen group studied the management of digital identities when EIDAS was implemented in Estonia.
Both short-term and long-term engagement of students in public sector-oriented research has proven extremely fruitful. Many former students are now employed by the public sector in Estonia and help to improve collaboration further.
Benefitting all sectors of society
The NextGen Research Group’s strength is engaging with the public sector. This creates a threefold connection between academia, the public and the private sector. One of the visible manifestations of such cooperation is the Eurora project. Triggered by the 2019 EU regulation that established the procedure for the transmission of VAT return data, Eurora Solutions OÜ wanted to take action. The company aimed to create a solution that would automatically help e-commerce providers calculate the amount of tax at the time of the purchase.
The goal was ambitious: to create a service platform software with wide-ranging benefits. The intended beneficiaries included e-commerce platforms, the EU and its member states, international couriers, logistic companies, tax administrators, and customs boards. The most difficult part of the project was to create a machine-learning algorithm that could determine the correct commodity code based on the description of the goods.
“It became clear very quickly that these calculations cannot be solved without the help of data scientists,” said Kaie Hansson, Innovation Manager of Eurora Solutions OÜ.
The cooperation with the NextGen group proved fruitful for both partners. During thousands of development hours, the data scientists created the core machinery to detect the commodity codes based on the product description. For Eurora Solutions, this resulted in the end product that numerous clients already use. For students and scientists, the process has produced several scientific articles and master’s theses.
Providing competence domestically and abroad
This three-dimensional cooperation has turned the NextGen group into a hub of knowledge extensively used domestically and internationally.
In Estonia, the group is one of the organisers of the Next Generation Government Symposium (NGGS) that brings together stakeholders from academia, government and the private sector to understand better next-generation government issues from interdisciplinary perspectives in technology, education, government, and law.
In cooperation with eGA, the NextGen group provides educational programs for CIOs abroad. It has also launched e-governance curriculums in Ukraine and Kenya. In Kenya, local academics are about to open a micro-degree program (an intense 1-year program) in digital governance in collaboration with the NextGen group.
“In all of our activities, we aim to benefit from and encourage interdisciplinary thinking,” says Ingrid Koppel. “We see that this kind of integration is increasingly valued and useful, and we as academics need to provide examples of how actually to do it.”