Estonia’s digitisation success story has been a hard sell for larger countries that believe such changes are only possible in smaller countries. The deployment of a new secure data exchange system in Ukraine may change that attitude. Called Trembita, the platform is already the country’s digital backbone for e-governance and e-services and connects more than 80 authorities across the sprawling country.
The system’s moniker is a nod to Ukraine’s pastoral roots: a trembita is a long wooden horn used by Ukrainian highlanders to announce births, funerals, weddings, and other occasions. Yet Trembita is anything but folksy. It’s been a technological step change for Ukrainians and a transformational experience for the Estonian team behind it.
The biggest project yet
“It’s the biggest project yet for the E-Governance Academy,” says Mari Pedak, senior consultant at the EGA, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia. “In total, the EGA has worked in more than 100 countries, and I have worked in 30 countries,” Pedak says, “but Ukraine is the biggest country, and this project is the biggest one I have dealt with.”
The EGA is a joint initiative of the Estonian government, the Open Society Institute, and the United Nations Development Programme. It supports the transfer of know-how and practice concerning e-governance and e-services to collaborators and with IT firms, assists in the design, selection, and implementation of solutions.
‘Excellent reference for Estonia’
For the Trembita project, EGA worked with Cybernetica, the Estonian IT firm behind its X-Road data exchange infrastructure and i-voting system, and Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. SoftExpansion, a Ukrainian IT company, also assisted in developing a data exchange system based on Cybernetica’s Unified Exchange Platform, or UXP, but tailored specifically to the needs of Ukrainians. The result, Trembita, showcases not only Estonia’s digitisation expertise but its applicability in a sizable country of 44 million people.
“It’s an excellent reference for Estonia and the EGA because usually, we have heard that e-governance is successful because Estonia is so small and that it can’t be implemented in bigger countries,” says Pedak. “But if we can be successful here, it’s evidence that good things can happen in big countries too.”
The decision to digitise
Trembita’s origins stretch back half a decade. While previous governments had looked into digitisation, they had not committed to it. Then the 2014 revolution in Ukraine happened and the rollout of a new version of X-Road. The government decided to focus on digitisation. In 2016, Pedak was tapped to lead EGOV4Ukraine, an EU-supported digitisation project. The effort involves participants from Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia and commenced in November, with an end date of June 2021.
Two tangible outcomes of EGOV4Ukraine have been the Trembita system and Vulyk, a modern information system for roughly 600 administrative service centers across Ukraine. Decentralisation has been the ideal for Ukrainian policymakers to strengthen regions and empower local municipalities, called hromadas. The partners rolled out Trembita in 2018, with the first data exchanges occurring in 2019. Since then, 180 different electronic interactions and services are ensured via Trembita, with more than a million data exchanges monthly.
Some popular services among Ukrainians include eBaby, which gives parents of newborns access to nine services within 15 minutes, rather than dealing with multiple government offices to file paperwork. ID-14, the primary identity card application service in Ukraine, also relies on Trembita. Soon, Ukrainians will be able to change their place of residence online.
Pedak credits Ukrainian government officials with seeing the system through implementation.
“It’s most critical and most important to have the political will,” says Pedak. “It was important in the Nineties in Estonia, and it is crucial in countries like Ukraine,” she says.
While Trembita is invisible to users as a backbone data exchange system, these projects have raised awareness of Estonia in Ukraine at large, Pedak notes. “Estonia is a well-known and important partner for Ukraine, even though we are small,” says Pedak. “Most know that Estonia has been successful in e-governance development.”
Estonian principles, Ukrainian cryptography
Cybernetica has been the lead IT partner for the development of Trembita. According to Riho Kurg, head of data exchange technologies at Cybernetica, while X-Road and Trembita are “practically the same” from a usage point of view, they have different internal mechanisms, in part because the Ukrainian government insisted on using Ukrainian cryptography, which gives Trembita another cryptographic layer over international standard algorithms. Trembita also has increased security around signature verification and more protection at the operating system level.
“Don’t forget, Ukraine is a country at war,” comments Kurg. “Every IT program has to go through a rigorous certification process, testing, code analysis, everything,” he says.
Creating Trembita using Ukrainian cryptography was a challenge, even for the seasoned team at Cybernetica. “There were lots of technical issues, especially regarding speed and scalability because Ukrainian libraries weren’t initially optimised for this kind of heavy use,” says Kurg. He notes that development was done hand in hand with a few local partners, SoftXpansion among them.
“This work was challenging because we had to support library development at the same time,” Kurg adds. “We used Estonian principles with Ukrainian cryptography, a unique combination for a system.”
Digitisation doesn’t discriminate by size
Knowledge around the system has since been transferred to Ukrainian partners, which will be responsible for maintaining and elaborating on Trembita in the future, according to Kurg. That way, the system’s deployment is not just creating a platform and leaving, but transferring expertise to Ukraine so that it can continue to refine its ecosystem, just as Estonia does.
Many believe that e-governance is only possible in smaller countries, but not in a bigger country like Ukraine. But this project has shown that such solutions can be deployed in a larger country very successfully.
freelance journalist and writer