Monday marks a historic moment for Estonia’s digital success story and quite possibly for the rest of the world, too. On this day, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed by Prime Minister of Estonia Jüri Ratas and Head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for developing distributed digital infrastructure providing health solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“We are talking about potentially planetary data exchange and the legal framework around it that is based on X-Road, the cornerstone of the Estonian e-government,” said Marten Kaevats, Digital Adviser of the State Chancellery and the primary architect for this deal.
Today WHO, tomorrow the UN
Since Mr. Kaevats became a member of the WHO Digital Health Technology Advisory Group in 2019, the interoperability of systems has become the WHO strategy’s key word. A pilot project connecting databases of about 20 countries is underway. However, the ambition is to provide the organization with a comprehensive digital data management plan with appropriate tools and methods. As a logical follow-up, he sees that it could become part of global data governance through the United Nations in the future.
The first project where distributed architecture will be piloted is the so-called “digital certificate of vaccination,” planned in cooperation with Guardtime, a digital security company. The aim is to provide reliable proof of immunity against COVID-19 in the likely future where the vaccine certificates are not totally reliable.
A necessity for data integrity
“We can easily imagine a scenario when we cannot be sure of the data integrity between the actual vaccine shot, its certificate, and the person carrying it. For example, some countries’ vaccines are simply substituted for fakes or the document to prove your vaccination comes from nowhere. In this case, the data integrity delivered by digital solutions becomes paramount,” explains Ain Aaviksoo, Chief Medical Officer at Guardtime Health.
“X-Road enables safe and anonymous interaction. When we have a list of reliable laboratories hosted by the WHO and each person has a digital identifier – say a QRS code – you would be, first, able to make queries into the databases without sending any private information and second, for databases of different countries and organizations safely to connect,” elaborates Mr. Kaevats.
“In this way, Estonian X-Road is offering an alternative to the two main data handling principles: Big Brother approach where the government is controlling all information or the Big Bucks approach where private enterprises hold our data. I’m not satisfied with either of these, and we offer a third option. I like to name it Little Brother. This is a solution where people themselves own data, and the state is offering transparent and safe infrastructure standards,” says Mr. Kaevats.
This solution is being developed internationally by NIIS (Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions) that includes Estonia, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. Mr. Kaevats stresses, though, that the benefit of X-Road is that the level of technological development of the country holds little importance. Countries as diverse as Singapore, Argentina, Chile, Cape Verde, and Rwanda are interested in the technology. Estonia’s cooperation with WHO is a significant step in exporting Estonian digital solutions and is likely to accelerate its demand and implementation.