Estonia may be renowned for all things digital but it’s actually been something of a straggler when it comes to the area of making data openly available for public use. That has changed in recent years, however, with a shift in government focus and help from local NGOs.
A milestone for the country came this year in Open Data Maturity Report 2020, an EU report on open data maturity across the region. Estonia placed fifth in the report and was for the first time considered to be a “trendsetter” country, alongside Denmark, France, Ireland, Spain, Austria, and Poland. It’s an inarguable achievement for a country that in 2018 rounded out the bottom of the list and was designated with “follower” status and reflects initiatives taken by the government.
From the bottom to a trendsetter
“We really were at the far bottom,” says Ott Velsberg, the Estonian government’s chief data officer. “But we have made a steady increase, moving from 27th place in 2018 to 13th place in 2019 to now fifth in Europe.”
The Open Data Maturity Report is published by the European Data Portal, an EU resource that has among its aims to improve the accessibility, awareness, and value of open data. It grades countries’ open data resources along four dimensions: policy, portals, impact, and quality.
The scores across all these categories are then used to place European countries into different levels of open data maturity. The higher the score, the more mature your country. Estonia scored high across all dimensions, thus earning the title of a trendsetter.
Chief Data Officer to the rescue
According to Velsberg, Estonia has been able to improve its score due to an increased commitment to supporting publication and re-use of data, which included his appointment as chief data officer two years ago, a new position for the government, as well as collaborations with Statistics Estonia and Open Knowledge Estonia in 2018. The Estonian Open Data Portal was also relaunched in November that year.
One of the first decisions to come out of the coordinated effort was to move to a demand-driven process for acquiring and sharing data sets via the country’s open data portal. “When we see a demand for a certain data set, we do whatever is possible to release that data in collaboration with that specific ministry or agency,” says Velsberg.
Open datasets jumped in number
Estonia has maintained some form of open data portal since 2011, and many EU internet and communications technology (ICT) projects were funded on an agreement that they would eventually make their data publicly available. But, as Velsberg and colleagues discovered, though funding had been set aside for publishing the data, many grantees never got around to doing so. By reminding them of their duty to release the data, Estonia’s open datasets jumped in number.
“We went through all the projects that had promised to do so, and this way steadily increased the number of datasets open to the public,” notes Velsberg. “In terms of data available, we saw an eight to 10 fold increase in the number of data sets available, and a similar increase has been seen in use cases,” he says. “More available data equals more reuse, and it has really paid off.”
Data free to be used
As of February 2021, the Estonian Open Data Portal hosts 787 datasets from 104 publishers, covering areas as diverse as agriculture, education, energy, health, governance, and transport. This data can be freely used by academic researchers or by startups to build new or extend existing services.
“Now we see the portal is much more mature in terms of the growth of datasets, the growth of publishers, but also in applications that have appeared based on them,” says Maarja-Leena Saar, a director of Open Knowledge Estonia, a Tallinn-based NGO that worked together with the government to support the effort. According to Saar, the growth of available datasets, as well as the jump in usage of that data is “real proof the ecosystem is working.”
Building out the catalog
According to Saar, the Estonian Open Data Portal is “basically a catalog, where one can fish for new ideas in the datasets.” To remain competitive in the arena of open data, Estonia, therefore, needs to make sure its catalog continues to grow, be more accessible, and experiences wider use.
To do so, she noted that there is an open data working group within the government that has shared guidance on how to upload and publish data to the portal. There are also efforts to find data sets in demand and bring them into the portal. Saar also credits Statistics Estonia as being a major data contributor. “They have produced so much data,” she notes, a trend that will continue.
Next goal – accessibility to wider groups of people
Guiding the way is also the European Open Data Directive, which entered into force in 2019. The directive emphasises the need for more high-value datasets, with a specific focus on statistics, private sector data, and data related to weather, the environment, and transportation.
Velsberg confirms that releasing more high-value datasets is a priority for the government at this time. “In addition to the high-value dataset categories outlined in the Open Data Directive, we
have decided to extend the list with an additional category called language corpora to boost Estonian-language technology development,” Velsberg says.
International cooperation is also a means to raise Estonia’s competitiveness. “We look at what Ireland has done, what France has done, what South Korea has done,” says Velsberg. “We keep an eye on what others are doing and try to do our best to lead in our field the best that we can.”
Indeed, in the future, open datasets will likely be shared across borders and accessible via consolidated portals. “This is yet to come and this will be big,” says Saar. “We are at the beginning of the road when it comes to developing open data services between countries,”
Getting data to users
While access to open data continues to improve in Europe, the proportion of users relative to the total population of the countries assessed has been low. That means that even if more high-value datasets are published to the Estonian Open Data Portal, not everyone knows that the data exists or knows how to use it. Communicating the availability and value of these datasets to the public, therefore, remains a priority.
“I’ll be honest, it’s the most difficult part,” says Velsberg. “Companies that use the data will find the data they need,” he says. “But getting it to citizens is hard,” Velsberg notes that the government has carried out workshops and courses to improve data literacy, including for government employees. There are also workshops for data providers and users to educate them on aspects surrounding open data, such as the difference between open data and private data.
Yet these efforts may too be paying off, in part buoyed by the COVID-19 Pandemic, which has left many Estonians at home seated before a computer with more time than ever on their hands.
“The COVID-19 crisis has been a blessing of sorts when it comes to open data,” says Velsberg. “The number of people visiting the Estonian Open Data Portal this year is about four times higher than it was a year before.”