Less than 24 hours after Estonia declared a nation-wide emergency situation on March 12, a group of local entrepreneurial minds launched Hack the Crisis, an online hackathon to solve issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Eight of the proposed ideas are on the market already. This problem-solving mindset did not just get Estonians excited. Thousands of people across the world decided to follow Estonia’s lead and join the #HackTheCrisis movement. Soon The Global Hack was born.
Over 12 000 people from almost 100 countries came together to create solutions that could help us protect ourselves against the pandemic and, yes, even thrive in this challenging new world. Over 1000 ideas competed for a prize fund of 195 000 €. The event has been covered by CNN, Forbes, The New Yorker, to name a few. The participants were supported by 850 mentors and among them were two digitalisation experts from the e-Estonia Briefing Centre.
The only way is digital. And it has been like that for a while.
Estonia started building a digital society in the 1990s. Becoming e-Estonia initially helped us save a lot of time and money, but today it does a lot more than that. It seems that the only way to go on with our daily lives is digitally. Our Expert Speaker Anett Numa admits that it is hard to imagine what the current situation and its aftermath would look like if Estonia wouldn’t have this small e with a dash in front of it. “I have been in touch with a lot of people from countries where things are still entirely done on paper. It would be a disaster if we would not have state services available online now.“ In this sense Estonians have largely continued to operate in the same way as before the crisis.
Expert Speaker Florian Marcus imagines how life in many countries might currently look like: “Teachers are struggling to deliver their classes online, government phone hotlines (yes, phones!) are overloaded so people don’t get answers to their questions, and entire administrations are asked to work from home which they can’t because their VPNs were never set up for so much server traffic. Citizens are either faced with voting under dangerous circumstances or electoral democracy is put on hold for a few months. You cannot imagine how happy I am to live here in Estonia.”
Topics at The Global Hack were divided into tracks, one of them being governance which took place under the leadership of former Estonian President Mr Toomas Hendrik Ilves. In Estonia, 99% of public services are already online. Both of our Expert Speakers were surprised that most solutions that were suggested in the governance track are already implemented in Estonia in one way or another. Marcus explains: “Many of the ideas are well-intentioned, but did not consider conundrums that Estonia has been addressing for the last few decades: storing health data on Amazon servers is a privacy and data protection risk, storing personal information directly on Blockchain solutions is a big no-no with the GDPR, and so on.”
The Global Hack: Public-private partnership at its best
In a crisis, it can often happen that people look to the government for help. Crisis hackathons prove to be exceptions. However, the initiative was still supported by the UN and the European Commission. What does this kind of collaboration between the public and private sector tell us? As Anett Numa points out, “something that makes Estonia very special is the public and private sector partnership that we have always had. I was happy to see that the UN and the European Commission are supporting the hackathon. The crisis will eventually end, but this kind of collaboration should continue. The European Commission should have very strong cooperation with European companies.” Marcus adds: “Public-private cooperation must be done with suitable expectations, conditions and funding. Then it can work very well. I encourage other countries to learn from the Estonian example by exchanging best practices with the various ministries and creating partnerships with Estonian companies.”
Numa and Marcus work hard every day to introduce the success story of e-Estonia, which is built on public-private partnership, and inspire people all over the world.
“This tiny nation of 1.3 million people has built up such a far-reaching reputation and is punching several weight classes above its own. At the same time Estonia keeps innovating. In my opinion, The Global Hack is a great reflection of this,” says Marcus.
Numa admits that she was extremely touched to listen to all the talks where Estonia was set as an example of how things should work. “When we have something that works here, then it is important for us to help other countries and vice versa. We need to put our heads together. I don’t see Estonia’s position only as flattering. I think it is a great responsibility. If we show the world that we have built a digital society, then we also need to demonstrate it during the crisis and prove that our solutions truly work.”
Permanent problems highlighted by the crisis
The overall winners of The Global Hack are SunCrafter (solar-powered light-disinfection), Act On Crisis (secure emotional support) and Material Mapper (help for keeping construction waste away from the landfills). It seems that these solutions aim to solve problems that have always been present but are now highlighted by the crisis. “The common thing I see here is that these solutions were not created only for the time being. For example, viruses will always be around us and thanks to SunCrafter people can start using solar-powered disinfection methods. The number of people suffering from mental health problems has been increasing in recent years. Isolation can make it even more challenging. To have someone to talk to is extremely important.”
Marcus was positively surprised by the emphasis on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). “This shows us that there is a lot of awareness regarding the factors that could improve our quality of life, ranging from gender equality and healthy food to education and sustainable cities.”
Talking about her personal favourites in the hackathon, Numa brings out consulting app Serw where one can meet professionals from different fields and purchase their services. She sees a deeper meaning behind this. “I think we should support those sectors that are suffering the most at the moment. For example, participating in a workshop where a professional chef teaches you to prepare your favourite meal is a brilliant way to do that. Spending additional time at home taking different courses might also be the perfect opportunity for some people to change their careers. Furthermore, being able to inspire oneself helps to fight mental breakdown.”
Crafting a successful solution
As a mentor, Numa brings out some key elements that are needed to create a successful solution. “There must be a problem. This problem needs to be defined very well. I noticed that many groups missed that bit. Secondly, it is important to ensure that this solution wouldn’t harm anyone and that it would be legally sound. The idea should be clear and have a future vision to receive support.”
Numa suggests Estonian AI chatbot SUVE as an excellent example. “SUVE is not going to stop after the crisis. The problem with getting accurate information was present before. Similar questions are being asked over and over again by different people. Answering each question individually is a waste of resources. I sincerely believe that people should use their time for more meaningful things than answering the same questions repeatedly.“
Numa also invites aspiring entrepreneurs to pay attention to a bottleneck. “It is important to bring together people with different areas of expertise. Putting together designers with legal professionals would bring great results. We are too separated in the education system as well. How can we work together if we haven’t practiced any cooperation during our university studies and gained knowledge of how different sectors work? We should have more opportunities to interact with people from different fields.”
After the crisis
When asking Marcus about his hopes for post-crisis Estonia, he believes Estonia is in a very good place: “On the human side, however, we have some work to do. People around the world can relate to the sentence “this meeting could’ve been an e-mail”. This crisis shows us how much truth that sentence actually holds. We all need to be more mindful of each other’s time. This means digitalisation wherever appropriate and travelling only for essential business.”
Numa highlights what Estonian Deputy Secretary General for Economic Development Viljar Lubi emphasised earlier. “People should have an opportunity to have 1 out of 4 weeks for working from home.” She adds: “I wish that people who have lost their jobs will find a new one even closer to their heart. Or if they want to return to their previous sector, they can temporarily gain experience in another.”
What could be the role of The Global Hack once the crisis is over? “The connections we have made during these challenging times will stay with us for much longer if we choose to cultivate them. These informal networks are what makes humanity so resilient, thoughtful, and innovative,” Marcus believes. “Each of us can leave a mark but all together we can make a real difference,” Numa concludes.