Building e-Estonia as one of the most advanced e-societies in the world has involved continuous experimentation and learning from our past. We see the natural next step in the evolution of the e-state as moving basic services into a fully digital mode. One of e-Estonia’s cornerstones for that is data exchange system X-Road, which allows Estonians to save annually over 820 years of worktime. And these savings come from only 5% of queries done via X-road. How is this possible and how can we move on from here?
Heiko Vainsalu, Architect at Estonian Information System Authority
X-Road is the backbone of e-Estonia. It’s invisible yet crucial, allowing the nation’s various public and private sector e-Service databases to link up and function in harmony. This way one can say that X-Road works like a highway for data traffic, connecting digitally 99% of government services. Without X-Road it all would be done in a way, which cannot be controlled and therefore can cause an unlimited amount of complexity and costs, while also impairing the interoperability.
Estonia’s e-solution environment includes a full range of services of public and private sector for the general public, and since each service has its own information system, they all use X-Road. To ensure integrity, all data exchange over X-Road is signed, timestamped and chained together in several ways.
Originally X-Road was simply used to inquire information from different databases. Now the usage scenarios have become more complex as there have been created services that allow also enhancing data in a database. Combining different X-Road web services has also been a trend among X-Road members. X-Road was designed flexibility in mind, so it scales up autonomously as new e-services and new platforms come online.
How does the data traffic highway work?
A unique aspect of e-Estonia is that we do not have a hub in the state information system, which would centrally regulate the data exchange. Many other countries, however, have organized their data exchange centrally. In Estonia all information is held in a distributed data system and can be exchanged instantly upon request, providing data exchange 24/7. Linking up thousands of databases, it saves approximately more than 820 years of working time for the state and citizens annually, while having over 900 organizations and enterprises in Estonia using X-Road daily. However, these savings are the result of only 5% of all queries done via X-Road. 95% of the savings are difficult to measure directly, as they occur automatically, thanks to the machine-to-machine data exchange. Therefore saving 820 years of working time a year is just a tip of the iceberg…
X-Road platform allows registered databases and information systems to automatically share information without human involvement. The system operates by defining a common set of protocols and security mechanisms that allow members’ information systems to recognise each other. Gaining access to data service over X-Road is done in two steps: users must first register with RIA (Estonian Information System Authority), the government agency that manages the network. This will be necessary only for the first time. Although the platform is geared toward government bodies, non-profits and private companies may also apply to join. After finding the required data service from X-Road directory a member must request access to this service from the other X-Road member that is the data service provider, and must get approval from the owner of each database they wish to access. Once approved, the data service can be used. All connections between members information systems use encrypted channels that are temporary in their nature – this way the confidentiality is ensured.
For example, while using eID and logging into e-State Portal, one can apply for the European Health Insurance Card, which allows anyone who is insured by or covered by a statutory social security scheme receive medical treatment in another member state free or at reduced cost, if that treatment becomes necessary during their visit to that country. For end user the service is very simple while in the backend the information of Population Registry and Health Insurance Fund is combined on-line to provide a „one-click experience“ for ordering the card for yourself or for your children. Integration of the e-State Portal with those two registries happens using X-Road.
X-Road is intended to create so-called invisible services, which means that citizens will have even less need for interaction with the state, since all necessary actions connected to the need to file any data are done automatically and in that sense invisibly.
Let’s take an example. In Estonia, a newborn child is first registered in the hospital’s information system. Data is transferred from there to the Population Register. While using e-State Portal, parents can register their child and give him or her a name. And all the information about the child is broadcasted to necessary information systems – to bring necessary social benefits and health insurance to the child and parents.
This sequence of the events will continue and will be soon even more “invisible” up to those years when child goes to school and continues his or her education on different levels – basic school, high school, university – while having all information automatically together with him or her and no need to file data separately. After graduating and getting a job, it will be as easy as it used to be – with no need to hassle with filing different documents, data for the tax payment is automatically taking from the system, leaving the citizen only with the obligation to spare 3 minutes on filing a pre-filled tax declaration with one click. Meanwhile, automating the process does not only concern the citizens, but also the companies operating in Estonia.
We believe that the state must be invisible in daily affairs, but always immediately accessible when needed. Time is a valuable resource for the state and for every single citizen. Spending time on bureaucracy reduces the state’s competitiveness and people’s quality of life. In order to remain an innovative, effective and successful Northern country that leads by example, we need to continue executing our vision of becoming a safe e-state with automatic e-services available 24/7.
Cross-border digital governance
Today, Estonia and Finland are the 1st in the world to interconnect distributed state information system on an international level. A public sector data exchange facility between Finland and Estonia was created in 2017 and means that for example, in the future health or education data of Estonian citizen can be also accessed by Finnish government or private sector, no matter if the person lives in Estonia or Finland. Estonia hopes that in near future, cross-border data exchange and provision of invisible public services will become possible across all Europe.
We can already state proudly today that, Estonia has shared its e-governance journey with 60 governments and exported its solutions, including X-Road, to over 130 countries around the world – from Finland, Oman, Ukraine, the Faroe Islands, Macedonia to Namibia, Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan and India among the others.
In order to remain an innovative, effective and successful Northern country that leads by example, we definitely need to continue executing our vision and sharing it with others.