The new frontier: X-Road launching towards data space

data spaces

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Estonia’s digital success is largely based on its distributed interoperability system, X-Road. This system allows safe and secure interaction between public data registries without the need for one “superdatabase.” With X-Road 8.0, Estonia is ready to enter the new era of data spaces.

The burden of responsibility

It is hard to overestimate how important X-Road has been to Estonia’s digital development. Its distributed architecture has influenced how Estonians think of digitalisation on the deepest level. X-Road has allowed the digital state to integrate private and public services seamlessly. It has also allowed Estonia to share its achievements with its neighbours successfully. While the first X-Road iteration was launched in Estonia in 2001, Finland launched its X-Road in 2014, and the two countries merged their X-Roads in 2018. Currently, X-Road is implemented in over 20 countries worldwide, and the software is maintained by the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), which consists of Estonia, Finland, and Iceland.

Having such a wide distribution of the software creates responsibility for development.

“It is not just updating X-Road in the three member states of NIIS, but making the next generation opportunities available for the wider community that uses our software,” says Ville Sirviö, CEO of NIIS.

One bottleneck has been that external contributions have remained low despite the worldwide X-Road community. This has hampered the development of new opportunities for the data economy. Migrating to the data space protocol stack would change the current situation.

Data space – the new frontier

Data space is the next step in the evolution of data integration architectures. It is a distributed system defined by a governance framework that enables reliable data transactions between participants while supporting trust and data sovereignty. The European Commission finances several projects supporting the development of data spaces and several private sector initiatives with proven economic benefits.

For example, data space can be created around maritime traffic, similar to air traffic control. This would relieve ship traffic congestion and help reduce emissions in ports.

European tourism data space offers the possibility of aligning offers to tourists’ expectations, adapting service proposals to new tourist groups, predicting a high influx of tourists, and thus allowing more efficient resource planning and new business opportunities.

Connecting X-Road to a data space requires implementing a custom gateway component responsible for conversions between X-Road and data space protocols. This is not a feasible solution in the long term. The number of gateway components that need to be developed and maintained grows over time, and achieving full compatibility through them is highly challenging. Therefore, a better approach for X-Road is to move from X-Road-specific protocols to the data space protocol stack.

Building on Gaia-X trust framework

Trust framework is a crucial factor in interoperability within and between data spaces. Different data space initiatives have their trust frameworks, which are nevertheless aligned.

Currently, NIIS aims to align X-Road’s trust framework with the Gaia-X trust framework. Gaia-X is an initiative to develop a federated secure data infrastructure for Europe, whereby data are shared, with users retaining control over their data access and usage, and to ensure European digital sovereignty.

The initiative aims to combine existing central and decentralised infrastructures to form a “digital ecosystem” using secure, open technologies with clearly identifiable Gaia-X nodes. The ecosystem will have software components from a common repository and standards based on relevant EU regulations. Gaia-X intends to offer significant benefits from a data and infrastructure perspective, including innovative cross-sector data cooperation and more transparent business models.

The changes to X-Road can significantly boost its usability and spread, so that more countries and organisations can benefit from it, similar to Estonia. The first step is implementing a proof of concept for X-Road 8.0 “Spaceship” in 2024.


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