Interoperability, or: Why we should talk more with one another

Florian Marcus of e-Estonia

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More and more countries worldwide are following the design principles that Estonia relies on since the early 2000s. A secure data exchange protocol that ensures the interoperability of different databases in the country has scaled, in a slightly different format, in Finland and Iceland. And there’s more to come.

Plenty of political and societal support

Suppose you are at all familiar with the history of digitalisation in Estonia and the key lessons that we share with stakeholders around the world via the e-Estonia Briefing Centre. In that case, you will have heard about what we deem to be the critical components of a digital society: a compulsory e-ID, plenty of political and societal support…and a secure data exchange protocol that ensures the interoperability of different databases of (y)our country.

Encouraging signs around the world!

The good news is that more and more countries worldwide are following the design principles that Estonia relies on since the early 2000s. As we call it, the X-tee has many sisters and brothers around the world these days: in Finland, it’s called Palveluväylä, and just last year, Iceland started setting up its Straumurinn platform. Usually, the initial reason for using this technology is to create a secure data exchange between different government authorities (and private sector entities if they wish to join) within one country. But because all three Nordic countries’ solutions are based on NIIS’s X-Road data exchange layer, they could technically exchange data between one another as well. Thus, cross-border data exchange is no longer a technical question, but a political and ethical one that each government has to answer for itself: with which other countries should I – nay, am I legally allowed to – share data that concerns my citizens? While this is undoubtedly a controversial topic, we already see successful examples such as the data exchange between Estonia and Finland’s business registers.

A lot of work is still to be done

The example mentioned above shows what can be done in interoperability when we carefully consider technological parameters and legal questions to arrive at a workable solution that saves time, money, and stress. The issue is that we don’t do this whole “carefully consider” thing very often. Case in point, Covid-19 contact tracing apps in the EU. The pandemic pushed all of us right toward the limits of what we as societies can handle, and thus member states went ahead and created applications for their population. Communication and handling of the pandemic became fragmented.

Interoperability in the EU

Now you may ask: “So… what if there is a long-haul trucker or politician who moves around between different countries a lot? Does that person have to download all the different countries’ contact tracing apps?” That’s a fair question! It was only on 19th October 2020 that the European Commission allowed the first three contact tracing apps (Germany, Ireland, Italy) to talk to each other through an EU Interoperability Gateway. That’s a good start, but, if we are honest, it is also not quite fast enough for the hundreds of thousands of people who still cross internal borders every day.

Then, there’s the area of communication. On the European Commission’s very own website, Estonia is still said to be in the planning phase for its contact tracing app even though HOIA has been around for more than three months already. When we are all asked to make sure that we take our information from trustworthy sources, it would be useful if such trustworthy sources would display reliable information that could make the difference between life and death for some.

Global initiatives can work!

This is not to say that international interoperability projects are bound to fail. Estonian companies and authorities are cooperating with the World Health Organization to pilot a vaccination certificate solution that focuses on embedded and decentralised privacy mechanisms while still being useable by different institutions around the world. The solution will employ data exchange mechanisms and legal frameworks that should look quite similar to the X-tee Estonia has been using for almost two decades. And this could bring global interoperability capabilities to an entirely new level.

Written by
Florian Marcus

digital transformation adviser at the e-estonia briefing centre


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