Ukraine and Estonia have had a long history of collaboration in developing digital solutions. While bombs fall on Ukraine, this cooperation endures, just like Ukrainians. Digital and decentralised government provides resilience that is especially sought after during these challenging times. In this regard, Ukraine has a lesson to teach us all.
A long history of cooperation
Cooperation between Estonia and Ukraine has quite a long history. The first large project, EGOV4UKRAINE, was led by the e-Governance Academy – between 2016 and 2021 – and it laid the digital architecture for current developments. This project was part of the more considerable administrative reform in Ukraine, ensuring that public services are delivered in an easy, fast, corruption-free, and efficient manner. The level of engagement by Ukraine in this reform is exemplified by the fact that Ukraine called into the office a separate Ministry of Digital Transformation.
The project and the digital transformation of the Ukrainian administration have been tremendously successful. During the EGOV4UKRAINE project, eGA and its partners created and implemented a data exchange platform Trembita, which ensures safe communication between state registers and information systems; and the Vulyk information system connecting administrative service provision centres. Naturally, the aim was not only to create digital platforms for their own’s sake. Ukraine viewed the implementation of modern digital infrastructure as the foundation to build the reformation of administrative processes in all spheres of life and develop e-services for Ukrainian citizens and businesses. At the moment, Trembita connects more than 160 Ukrainian authorities and local governments, providing the basis for e-services.
By the way, the word „trembita” stands for a horn used by Ukrainian highlanders as a means of communication to bring people together for events like weddings, deaths, and funerals. It is now calling together data for and from similar circumstances.
eGA’s subsequent project EU4DigitalUA is a continuation of this work. It is tasked with harmonizing Ukraine with the EU Digital Single Market and implementing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. European and Ukrainian experts are cooperating to develop Trembita, state registers, digital identity, e-services and strengthen cyber security capabilities. Thus, it is paving the way for even closer embeddedness of Ukraine into Europe.
War does not stop time!
Despite the direst circumstances of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the work on digitalisation continues daily. Employees at eGA still wonder how they had lunch with their Ukrainian colleagues just a few weeks ago, and now the bombs are falling. The war has even accelerated and empowered the eGA’s team in Ukraine, consisting of 20 experts currently working in more than 10 locations to support building and maintaining the digital realm.
Ms. Mari Pedak, head of eGA’s Ukrainian team, announced that just this week, eGA is expecting to get additional funding for increasing cyber security and data security in Ukraine in line with best practices and taking into account all standards that safeguard fundamental freedoms. She emphasized how to access in an emergency situation, digitalisation, and location independence is crucial in providing Ukrainians access to the government services they need.
“We help to create preconditions for Ukraine’s victory by helping to develop strong cyber defence capability, maintaining the operation of ICT infrastructure, and supporting the provision of wartime services. The results of our team’s work reach every Ukrainian because we help to protect their personal data from falling into the hands of the aggressor and support the services to reach people. eGA supports territorial defenders with everything they need, from the means of communication to food parcels,” Ms. Pedak said.
Digitalisation allows much of life to continue — to a certain extent — as before. People still get married, apply for COVID support, and even start businesses. Mstyslav Banik, one of the leaders of Ukrainian digitalization, has reported, for example, how 98% of Ukrainians are registering births online. He even gave an example of how a fresh dad registered the birth of his daughter while sitting in MacDonalds.
Estonia and Ukraine – digitally related
Estonian expertise in providing assistance to Ukraine has tangible results. One could even say that technologically we are related because Trembita shares the Estonian X-Road model – an inter-organisational secure data exchange platform that runs underneath and between Estonian digital edifice. Cybernetica, which were part of the original consortium that developed the Estonian renowned data exchange platform in 2001, provided also the system for Ukraine. In Ukraine, it was launched in 2019.
Additionally, eGA helped to develop the Vulyk – Ukrainian for “beehive” – information system. Currently, more than 370 Ukrainian municipal service centers have connections to the Vulyk information system, which is connected to state registers via Trembita. Thanks to this connection, service centers can serve citizens faster and more correctly. The Ministry of Digital Transformation is planning to keep digitalising these service centers even further so that they are compatible with the new generation of mobile-based solutions.
Aiming for security and transparency
Ukraine has, sadly, been known for its corruption, but digital data management helps to prevent this, too. With paper documents, it is easy to extract bribes to advance them in the bureaucratic machinery. With digital systems, this option is not available and the processing of, say, construction permits, is transparent. Or, for another example, the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Prevention Agency tasked with reviewing the income and asset declaration of public officials now has access to all relevant registers through a single portal.
For obvious reasons, the security of the digital infrastructure is also paramount. During the development of Trembita, Cybernetica has reported how they had to commit to providing state-of-the-art cryptography for Ukrainian standards. The result of these efforts pays off. Data exchange between Ukrainian databases is so secure that, until now, no leaks have been detected. This has given them the confidence to announce an open call to hack a copy of their data system with the award of a million grivnas (31 000 euros). So far – no one has got the prize!
Ukraine learning from Estonia learning from Ukraine
When Estonia came up with our e-governance solutions in the 1990s, the focus was primarily on computers. Now technological progress has allowed Ukraine to rely much more on smartphones. For one, the Ukrainian system DIIA allows currently to store 11 documents in digital folders electronically: traveller’s passport, driver’s license, car registration certificate, insurance documents, vaccination certificates, child’s birth certificate, student card, tax identification number, certificate of people fleeing the war zone of Donbas and Crimea. Additionally, a digital signature can be given using face-recognition software. For these reasons, people in Estonian digital systems are now also interested in learning from the experience of Ukraine.
The Ministry of Digital Transformation continues to develop Diia’s products even during the active phase of the war with Russia. Recently, a new document appeared in the Diia application – a document that contains information about the person, passport data, tax number, and place of registration. Also, new services allow the transfer of financial assistance to the Ukrainian army and even an integrated chatbot that informs the Armed Forces of Ukraine about the military equipment of Russian invaders.
Furthermore, Ms. Pedak recognizes that Ukrainians have done an excellent job informing their citizens about the possibilities of digital solutions. Diia’s digital skills development program is planned to provide 6 million Ukrainians with digital knowledge and skills over 3 years.
As Ms. Pedak acknowledges: “In addition to the world’s first State in Smartphone concept, Ukraine has set an example and shown the importance of training and informing the population. Estonia was a pioneer in the development of e-government, but Estonia’s approach was technocratic, and the importance of communication with people was only realized during the development process.”
All eyes on Ukraine!
social scientist at the university of helsinki and the estonian university of life sciences