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Government Chief Data Officer Ott Velsberg: Bürokratt is Siri on steroids 

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Recently we had the chance to interview Estonia’s Chief Data Officer Ott Velsberg for our podcast. Here’s the full transcript – fittingly created by an Estonian AI company called Snackable – of the talk our former Digital Transformation adviser Florian Marcus had with the man in charge of e-Estonia’s data- and AI-related strategy. 

Florian Marcus

Welcome to this podcast created by the Estonia Briefing Center. In this series, we invite some of the most influential people in politics and business to discuss all angles of digitalization in Estonia and the world. From past learnings to current challenges and future plans. So take a seat, pour yourself a glass of your favorite drink, and enjoy “The Art of Digitalisation”!

Florian Marcus

Hello and welcome to yet another iteration of the art of digitalization done by the Estonia Briefing Center. My name is Florian, and today I have a very special guest with us. It is Ott Velsberg. He is the chief data officer of the Republic of Estonia. Thank you to those that are following all things Estonia. Just earlier today, we had the Digital Discussion on artificial intelligence, and we hope that you enjoyed it very much. We will cover some of the similar topics here today, but we will also find some specific tidbits for those that are listening to everything related to Estonia.

What does a Chief Data Officer do all day?

Florian Marcus

The first question will be a bit more general, I guess. What does a Chief Data Officer actually do all day?

Ott Velsberg

It’s actually a more complicated question than it might sound.

Florian Marcus

We have time. No worries.

Ott Velsberg

Luckily, we have time. So the short answer would be that I oversee the strategic coordination of data governance, data science, including artificial intelligence, open data, citizen-centric data governance, and other fields. And uh. But why? It’s more complicated because, in the end, the government is quite clear in the chief data officer itself. So I end up coming off projects legislation is definitely one part of international cooperation. So it is really kind of different tasks that are needed for the government as a whole to actually move forward.

Ott Velsberg

And on top of that, while kind of the focus right now is on the public sector itself, then, of course, we need to work as a team on building kind of the human capacity. Work on education, for instance, a few years ago, I put together a master’s degree program on data science that today through university carries out. So it is not only the government itself. We need to work on kind of the wider population and different initiatives, for instance, to raise data literacy.

Florian Marcus 

Was that master’s program more of a personal initiative of yourself or would that be something that would have happened one way or another because it’s part of some formalised strategy inside the Estonian government?

Ott Velsberg

So it’s actually a great question. It created some tension between different ministries because the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication itself, which is your employer, which is my employer, is not per, say, responsible for education in Estonia. But sometimes when we see that there are areas related to ICT that we need to develop, and there is no kind of market that that fills, that needs and other agencies, ministries don’t fill up that need as well. We, unfortunately, have to step in ourselves to make sure that our ecosystem functions the way that we expect greetings from all of our friends from the Education Ministry. Absolutely.

Florian Marcus

I mean, having taken my second master’s degree in Estonia, I’m very grateful for all the hard work you undoubtedly do every day and regard with regards to that, that master’s program or more widely, these let’s call them initiatives that depend on individuals at the end of the day, you know, just having these ideas. Do you feel like Estonia is particularly pragmatic in this kind of area? Or do you see other countries where one person, because of the lean management and the lean, uh, architecture can make these kinds of changes? Or would you say that’s something rather specific to Estonia?

Ott Velsberg

So Estonians are definitely more pragmatic, and it really has to do with the number of people we have, the resources we have. So everything always has to be pragmatic. Two candidates, so it’s even the case in education, we often try to get the most out of the student, whether it is in collaboration with the private sector or even the government itself. We try to maximize and the kind of the underlying thing that I see in different projects is efficiency. Unfortunately, the downside of carrying out projects in such ways is that we often forget the kind of human quality side of things. Yeah. So kind of customer satisfaction of services, we often forget to measure that. That doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention. There is a mantra that let’s try to be as proactive, as efficient as possible. So it has downsides.

Florian Marcus

And then the question is, are we actually delivering on all of these things that we set ourselves? Absolutely.

Do Estonians have a higher level of awareness of how their data is being used?

Florian Marcus

We mentioned education, and I think this is where we can slowly head towards the more of the essence of your job, which I guess relates to data awareness, quality, governance, and so on. One thing that seems to be a particular concern for many people today is is data privacy and protection, but more as an obscure term that people have heard but are not quite sure how to exercise privacy or how to make sure that data protection is enshrined and really practiced every day. Do you feel like Estonians overall because of their digital government, have a higher level of awareness of how their data is being used. And if so, why? And if not, why the hell not?

Ott Velsberg

That’s an interesting question, and I think right now what I see is that there is a large population of people that actually don’t pay that much regard when it comes to data privacy and how even the government itself functions. To be honest, there’s a lot of trust. That’s one of the issues behind that.

So even if we had an ID crisis, for instance, four years ago, then we didn’t see the drop in the usage of government services. And similarly, when we look at the data tracker, which provides an overview to citizens of how the government processes data, then it is only 20 to 30 thousand people who actually on kind of monthly basis, look at the data tracker itself. So, yeah, and for those who don’t know – there are 1.3 million people in Estonia, so not too much. And we similarly carried out kind of online survey among citizens on how do you perceive the risks of A.I.? And it kind of reflects the ambitions and the way people in Estonia kind of go on with their life.

One-third found that A.I. might somehow negatively affect them. So it’s not too bad. One-third found it’s the best thing to happen to humankind. Now comes the very Estonian part. One-third said they don’t care. They don’t care if the government uses A.I.; if we use blockchain, they don’t care! Just deliver the best services possible. So that’s kind of the way people see that it’s just another technology. This is just another way of operating. And as long as it doesn’t affect my life in a negative way, let it be. Let it go.

Florian Marcus

Would you say that is laudable, a positive feeling or vibe that people say – we are comparably pragmatic? Or do you say that that is a potential risk because people are maybe uh, I mean, it doesn’t matter whether they should be for or against, but they should have an opinion on this. How do you feel about this?

Ott Velsberg

So people in Estonia have opinions, and it is more related to that – we are more and more getting used to how the government itself or how and if Estonia operates. So if someone goes abroad, then they typically have the kind of a-ha moment where they found out like, OK, this is not the typical way, how the government functions.

I have had this situation myself a few times, still currently working in Sweden as well. Things are different, guys. Things are different. Even declaring your taxes takes a lot more time. You get a huge pile of papers through the mail and then you need to send them back. So it’s a different way how people function and operate.

And as a result, our expectations in Estonia, are we are so used to how the government functions. So if nothing bad happens, then we end up not paying attention each day to how things go. And this is similar to data privacy. Of course, everyone knows we carry out kind of, uh, really wide-scale, for instance, on cybersecurity. It’s a risk. So awareness campaigns, have to role, but people don’t think about things on a daily basis because they are so used to that. So it’s a positive thing, but as it’s with everything, if you’re too comfortable, you often kind of forgot the basics.

How many AI use cases do we have in the public sector?

Florian Marcus

You mentioned an interesting point about A.I. people not even being aware of potentially, you know what it could contribute or, you know, they don’t care as long as it works. I feel like this could be a sort of watershed moment if we compare it to infrastructure projects supported by EU funds, where there has to be this big sign that says EU funds supported. And maybe at the end of every single proactive service or A.I.-based solution, you can say this service was provided to you by A.I. – so that people have a better idea of how it all works, but I guess that would not be very practical. So how do we strengthen this sort of awareness of what I can do for us? And already does today, because you mentioned it also earlier today, how many A.I. use cases do we have in the public sector today?

Ott Velsberg

So the short answer is yes, over 80, yeah, and with over 30 projects ongoing. And I’m not sure whether it is just about raising awareness by a kind of providing information that you’re now, for instance, communicating with the A.I. Yeah, I would expect that most people would understand that anyways. Mm-hmm. But it is definitely about kind of raising the overall awareness, um, kind of putting the focus where it’s necessary. For instance, right now, we are really discussing how to improve Estonian language technology kind of prediction and how well it’s working. And as part of that, we need everyone’s help.

To donate their different speech so we can transcribe them. And based on that data, we can then train better models for speech, transcription, and even machine translation. And this is something that everyone in the end uses, and I see similar kinds of nonawareness in other areas as well.

For instance, let’s take open data. So in open data, typically the question from the government agencies is, yeah, but you keep talking about open data. But is there anyone really using open data? And the short answer is actually, of course, and the European Commission last year carried out a kind of impact assessment on how big is the Estonia market for open data and open data has a market value roughly of 350 million euros. That is a lot, but people don’t are aware. And in the end, if you use Google Translate if you use Bing Translate if you use Waze, Google Maps, any of the big vendor, uh, kind of solutions, you actually are using a part of open data that the government has provided. So it’s I think the government can do more on the awareness-raising. That’s the kind of short answer.

Government agencies and Bürokratt

Florian Marcus

Now, one of the spearheading projects that I believe you are working on at the moment is what the Estonians like to call Bürokratt. Can you explain to us what it is, what it does, and wherein the development stage we are?

Ott Velsberg

So project is our vision of how the government should function in the age of A.I., and it is a virtual assistant, in short. So people who are familiar with Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa – Bürokratt is Siri on steroids. So providing services being proactive if you are kind of able to receive any benefits from the government if your passport expires, if you need to get your third dose of vaccine, for instance. So it is about providing a kind of seamless way to interact with the government from one point of the contact point. So you don’t need to specifically know which government agency to contact, which government employee to contact, and you really have a kind of an easier way to interact, whether it is through speech, through sign language, through text.

Of course, in the beginning, we are talking about the text and voice, but I hope that we can provide services really in a kind of in a way that everyone in the society has fair access. And I’m just going to make a nice call to everyone in Vabamu, actually, in a few weeks’ time, we are going to open, um, e-Estonia exhibition, and we are going to introduce. How has been this journey for Estonia for the last thirty years?

Raising awareness is just one way to do that. And kind of the future look is on Bürokratt. So if anyone wants to kind of dive in on what we have done, then that’s one chance. But the short answer back to the question of how and how far we are right now, we are in development.

So on the 24th of February last year, we came out with that concept. We carried out various analyses and by the end of this year, we are going to implement the rock right at the Border Police and Border Control National Library and Consumer Protection Authority. So on three different agencies. And as a result, whether you contact the police or National Library, you will still kind of get an answer to your question. And we are next year already coming out with the first public services as well. So whether it is borrowing a book and receiving it at your mailbox, that’s the kind of idea.

Florian Marcus

Many of the listeners will be wondering because they’re dealing in exactly these topics that we’re talking about is how do you make these different government agencies or public authorities compliant and go in the same direction with you? Is that a challenge in Estonia or do we just have some bold and brave pilot project that then inspires the rest of us? How does it work?

Ott Velsberg

So when it comes to A.I., we are actually kind of the pilots and we provide a lot of support to different agencies. So when it comes to A.I., I guess around half of the projects right now that we have carried out have to some degree been influenced by the ministry itself. So whether it is in ideation face trying to actually help different agencies to understand how I can support them on their business problem. But it always starts out by understanding what is the problem that agencies right now have and then seeing it is just one of the kind of technological solutions to solve that we provide funding.

Ott Velsberg

Also, we have a kind of more strict mechanism. We have the strategic agenda for 2030 that also sees that the Estonian government should be AI-powered. Yeah. So we have the strategic vision, but also on a practical level, we support everyone that wants to invest in the area.

Who approaches agencies in regard to problems they need to solve with A.I.?

Florian Marcus

So but these small problems that all the different agencies have? Do you always approach them or do you always or at least partially have them approaching you saying: Hey, we, you know, at the National Library, we really have this one problem. Can you solve this with A.I.? How does that happen sometimes, or can you give some examples for that?

Ott Velsberg

Yeah, it’s both ways. OK, so some of the organizations we approach ourselves. But typically, it starts out that we have this kind of bi-monthly meetups where different agencies present and discuss what they have done when it comes to A.I. This is just one way to kind of to spark motivation and interest in the field itself. And we have concrete, different formats that we can provide. For instance, brainstorming deep dives. Deep dive is kind of a coherent format to think through the ideas and then end up with the kind of theoretical concept on how to actually carry out the project itself. And in the end, we provide funding as well.

What does it all cost?

Florian Marcus

This probably brings us to the next question that also some people in the government sector will be interested in. What does it all cost? So what is the budgeting for this? You mentioned that the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Communications is primarily funding this. Is it the sole funder or sponsor of this undertaking or what’s going on there?

Ott Velsberg

So we’re not the sole undertakers. Of course, we have our friends from the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, but when it comes to different projects, then I think it might be interesting that the average project cost right now is around 50 to 60 thousand euros, but we have seen projects asking for funding for as little as five to seven thousand euros. So kind of the expectation typically is that everything is extremely costly. And as part of our strategy, we have the basic competence so reusable components that everyone can use. And on those projects, their implementation costs, are even lower because we have already developed a kind of base technology and it’s more about adapting to different organizational needs. For instance, we have a textual analytics toolkit now.

Florian Marcus

Now one thing that may feed into this, not from an internal perspective, but rather from an external perspective, is the program that recently concluded it was the application phase for the Digital Testbed Framework. Where to those people that are not in the know – effectively, the Estonian government said, Hey, guys, around the world, what kind of cool ideas do you have and maybe we can make them happen or help make them happen in Estonia? And what are the hopes that you guys have with regards to this project? And what do you think is the sort of a frame of what we can make happen within this project? 

Ott Velsberg

So we have built out this kind of a sandbox mentality for some time. We actually started out carrying out the first sandbox initiatives when it came to A.I. So this was kind of a natural extension that let’s go from what we have learned when it comes to A.I. and extend it across the globe. Government as a pilot organization to test out your ideas. And as a result, the solution itself is open source, everyone can use it. And it’s really about testbed. My own hope is that we can validate and provide kind of support to great ideas, and they can say that during the first phase. There were some really interesting ideas that we followed up, and we are right now kind of working on formalizing that. So I can already see that it really pays off.

How long does it take to file applications for these projects?

Florian Marcus

One thing that struck me when I looked at the application page and what I hope, what I assume is also the same or very similar for these projects under Bürokratt, that we talked about before, is that these application procedures seem to be pretty unbureaucratic. How long does it usually take two to file one of these applications? Is it, uh, like also for these internal programs, would that be something that a dedicated team can do in a day or how does it work?

Ott Velsberg

Yeah, it’s completely unbureaucratic. So if an agency wants to collaborate, either call me or email me and it’s done. Let’s agree on the first meeting! So it’s completely unproblematic. There is no kind of application forms or anything similar to that. So it’s really simple. And at the same time, I think when we look at the overall kind of government strategy itself. Yeah, when we talk about specific projects, it is worth noting that the overall government strategy for A.I. was only €12 million euros. And it included education, businesses, and so on. So we, unfortunately, have to be unbureaucratic because we don’t have the time and money to waste on that.

Why pragmatism is the key to success

Ott Velsberg

So it goes back to the thing I mentioned before efficiency. 

Florian Marcus

It’s good to be poor, isn’t it? There are a lot of things to say about this ethos of pragmatism. Just trying things out, if it doesn’t work, will drop it. If it works, ninety-five percent will implement it, and we’ll going to improve the last five percent while it’s online, so it can already help most of the people. So this approach is really, really critical, I think.

Ott Velsberg

Absolutely. And I keep on telling everyone that kind of simplicity is the key. Keep it simple. People often kind of complicate things that they want to achieve the best solution possible, all-inclusive for every single person, every person, every use case. But simplicity is the key. And for you starting to understand that I can really kind of help automating simple tasks. Of course, it can provide kind of much-welcomed look forward recommendations as well. We go in that direction as well. But people typically forget that there is a lot of kind of low-hanging fruit to be kind of get really fast.

Florian Marcus

I was about to say in the CIO’s office, the low-hanging fruit is a much-discussed topic because they are attractive and delicious. So why not take them? 

Ott Velsberg

Exactly.

How can we learn from other countries in terms of A.I. and data governance

Florian Marcus

Last but not least, perhaps a look abroad as well. I’m sure that you are in touch with all of the big decision-makers and stakeholders around the world, as you should in your position. And I guess the question is, where can we look? Which countries can we learn from in terms of A.I. data quality data governance and so on? And why?

Ott Velsberg

So there are really great partners that we are working with, um. Canada is one of them, New Zealand, UK, Ireland. This is especially when it comes to data governance. Canada has its own practical means to address A.I. ethics as they have developed algorithmic impact assessment.

Florian Marcus

So is there something that you’re looking into as well?

Ott Velsberg

We have been looking into that. Yeah. Unfortunately, the kind of the underlying question is how European A.I. regulation goes forward. So we don’t want to duplicate things as well if there is some kind of impact assessment requirement from the European Commission. Then, of course, we are going to follow that. But that said, we have actually already adopted algorithmic impacts assessment in Estonia, but we are kind of right now in between waiting for what’s going to happen with the A.I. regulation.

Advice for the rest of the world on data governance

Ott Velsberg

New Zealand, I mentioned before they have adapted the best kind of data stewardship program and we are really looking forward. We have visited them as well to understand how their data stewardship program in the government operates, what kind of a function National Statistics Organization has. And for those who are unfamiliar, data stewardship or data steward are people who are responsible for data, whether it is data quality, finding data, or better data. So it is a person responsible in an agency for the dataset.

Florian Marcus

I don’t want to call data a product, but it’s something like a product owner, somebody who really is responsible at the end, so absolutely crucial stuff. But are there any last words that you want to share with us, and wisdom for the rest of the world, what to focus on in the area of A.I. and data governance?

Ott Velsberg

So it is definitely important to understand if you want to carry out any of the A.I. projects themselves. You start, you need to start investing in data governance. I mentioned that before as well. So metadata data quality without the kind of making sure that your backyard is clean and in order, it is really difficult to carry out the project itself. And as I said before as well, keep it simple. Simplicity is the key.

Florian Marcus

All right. And with that wisdom, we will leave you for today. Dear listener; Ott; thank you so much for being with us today and to our listeners, thank you as always for supporting us and staying with us for this lovely conversation and the digital conversation and the art of digitalisation, as we like to call it. Thank you so much and hear you next time.

Ott Velsberg

Thank you.

Florian Marcus

And that’s the end of yet another thought-provoking conversation about the art of digitalisation. In the meantime, make sure to stay connected with Estonia on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also check out our website to learn more about digitalisation in this beautiful country and other upcoming events. For now, that is all from our side. Stay tuned for our next podcast episode and have a great day!

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