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What can we learn from digital Ukraine?

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In the e-Estonia Briefing Center’s podcast series “The Art of Digitalisation” we invite some of the most influential people in politics and business to discuss all angles of digitalisation in Estonia and the world. From past learnings to current challenges and future plans. Here’s the full transcript – created by Estonian startup Snackable AI’s Insights Engine – of our episode with  Jaanika Merilo,  an evangelist of e-government, the Head of PR and Communication of Funderbeam, an Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine and advocate of EU and Ukrainian relations.

Jaanika Merilo on her background and her passion for Ukraine

Florian Marcus

Hello and welcome to another episode of The Art of Digitalisation. My name is Florian Marcus. I’m your host today, and with us today, we have Jaanika Merilo. She is the Head of PR and Communications at Funderbeam. She is also an advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine. And besides that, she is also a full-time advocate of Estonian, Ukrainian, and arguably European relations. First of all, Jaanika, thank you so much for being with us. How are you today?

Jaanika Merilo

Thanks so much for inviting me! Well, very challenging times. Yesterday was better than today, but I hope tomorrow will be better than today also.

Florian Marcus

Yes, also! We should say that we are recording this episode towards the end of February, and there are still a few days to go. But we’re very much looking at the current situation in Ukraine and how it all develops. But before we delve into that topic, among many others, can you maybe tell us about your background and both sort of, your ethnically speaking, but also where does your passion for Ukraine and Estonia come from? And then also, how did you get into the tech scene out of all the different scenes?

Jaanika Merilo

Well, it’s a little bit twisted. Let’s say I was born with a Ukrainian father and Estonian mother, so probably it was somewhere in the DNA already a long time ago.

Florian Marcus

Sorry – you were born in Estonia or in Ukraine?

Jaanika Merilo

Yes, I was born in Estonia, but I spent all my summers in Ukraine, as you know, when the parents leave their children with their grandmothers. My grandmother happened to be in Ukraine. Time went by and I somehow found myself in IT. I started programming when I was small or young, which means at the age of 17 or 18. 

And then, of course, programming, then project management, and investment management. Then one thing led to another and I found myself in Ukraine, like twenty years later. Because in Ukraine, there was the Orange Revolution. It was a very exciting time actually, where the foreigners, let’s say, came to power or were invited to take the government roles, which means the young reformers and some of them were foreign. I consider myself only half foreign! But Lithuanian Minister of Economic Affairs Aivaras Abromavičius came to the cabinet, and he asked me to be an advisor because I was walking around and preaching about e-government. Like some crazy evangelist saying that once there will be a time and everything will be “e”. Then he asked me: “You have been talking the talk, but can you really walk the walk?” So I ended up in the Ukrainian government as an advisor because I’m Estonian. My nationality is Estonian, and the only thing I can be is an advisor.

But still, it was a very exciting time, or has been, because when I came in 2015, there was nothing “e”, basically no e-services whatsoever. Like nothing – no registries, no services. So Ukraine has been building it up during the last seven years. And it’s very exciting to really have a country of 40 million and to start figuring it out. So we have nothing, we should have every single thing ready tomorrow. And what are the components? What are the priorities? Estonian lessons learned basically: what are the fundamentals we can take from Estonia? What should we reinvent? Because as you don’t have heritage technology you can take the latest one, which is very exciting. So for example, in Ukraine, there is e-government in smartphones not like wired ID-cards anymore. 

A dark-haired woman and a lighter-haired man standing and smiling
Jaanika Merilo and Florian Marcus at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre.

Estonia’s return to politics in the 1990s and early 2000s

Florian Marcus

So before we get into the e-Gov Ukraine topic, you mentioned the Orange Revolution and how many many foreigners with Ukrainian roots came back, or also came into power during that time. Obviously having this Estonian background as well, you’re surely aware of how the first wave of politicians in the 1990s in Estonia – there were so many people who came back from abroad as well. Did it feel somewhat similar? The Ukraine of the 2010s, the early 2010s? And then, Estonian returns in the late 1990s? Would that be fair to compare?

Jaanika Merilo

Well, not so many Ukrainians really returned to work with the government, it was a strange situation where the foreigners were brought in, actually. In the government there were like, two ministers from Georgia, then half American, then a Lithuanian, and so on. So it was a little bit like old ancient Kyiv times when it was like the government of varyags –  when the government was outsourced to Lithuanians, the Scandinavians, and so on. So it was also a little bit different because the situation was totally alike, economically and fundamentally different. When Estonia in the nineties, it was like the birth of a new country, like everything is possible, like all the rules weren’t there yet. You have to reinvent the government. Then in Ukraine, it was like more of a strange status quo. When you have oligarchs, when you have certain economic interests, when you don’t really have a rule of law, and so on. So it was yes, it was a movie rodeo.

Florian Marcus

How do you break the stalemate was probably more the question there. 

How is the e-government in Ukraine?

Florian Marcus

Now you already mentioned e-government, which is precisely what we want to talk about. I think most people would agree that Ukraine is one of the most dedicated students of Estonia in terms of building a digital society. And you also mentioned that, you know, just under 10 years ago, there was little to nothing in terms of e-society in Ukraine. How has that development been going, and where are we today? Could you tell us more about that?

Jaanika Merilo

Well, yes. Ukraine is a very good student of Estonia. Still, Ukraine is kind of observing and taking bits and pieces that could be like used in Ukraine, but also, as I said, hopping over several technologies and basically hopping over 20 years of old technology.

But what was interesting, actually, was that it was a political decision that the government was a priority. The minister was established, and now over 300 people work in the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which means that the government understood that it’s important to empower someone who has authority over other ministries to make it happen. Because before that, there were some attempts at the city level, some attempts like one ministry level. But you need the national and not an attempt, but actually, power to make it happen now. And now as a result of it, the minister is 30-something years old. He’s very, very young. His deputy ministers are like 25-26 who don’t even remember this – you know, in our good old times, they used to work like that.They don’t remember. Not the good, not the old, not any times besides time with the smartphones. So basically, now 11 million people are using government services through the mobile phone. And even, for example, you can show your passport on your smartphone, your driving license, your student license. And so basically it’s happening very fast. It’s very challenging because you have many, many, many registries you need to create, like the demographic register and everything in the background. But still, people are starting to use services very fast. Like e-health reform, it has happened in just a few years, from zero to like 60 percent of people using it.

Florian Marcus

I think the most important thing is that the decision-makers don’t get discouraged by the low usage numbers at the start, because obviously, as with every technology you will at the start, you have these trailblazers who just want to try out the latest thing. And then probably the grandmothers and grandfathers in the country will be one of the later adopters. So this is perfectly normal. And probably not to get discouraged too early.

Jaanika Merilo 

You know, it’s actually a strange thing that when you have nothing and you implement something, you will have lots of positive feedback because every step you take is more than there was and there is like one force or one set of people who are ready to use who didn’t have this kind of possibility. So it’s constant positive feedback, and it was really nice to also implement changes in the level of the city because, for example, we didn’t have any e-health solution. People were waiting in the lines, the doctor basically started from the very early hours of the morning. And then a year later, you have implemented it in one million cities and you can see that three million people or times were booked through the internet. They’re not waiting like the real people, real services and you really improve their life. It’s unbelievable feedback, really, when you feel and see it’s not numbers, it’s people whose lives they’re changing.

Florian Marcus

And what I think, what strikes me about the Ukrainian experience is actually one of the main counterarguments that Estonia always experienced. Oh, we can’t learn from Estonia because it’s so small. It’s only 1.3 million people. And so finally, we have a country with tens of millions of people with cities – Kyiv for example is bigger than the entire population of Estonia. So all of a sudden, we can see how it does work on a bigger scale and we can see it right here. So this is very encouraging in my opinion.

Jaanika Merilo 

The rationale behind it works basically is taking the bits and pieces and the fundamentals that work basically have the X-Road. You should integrate the registries, you should have them, you should implement one similar principle, you should have an ID, and so on. So the main blocs definitely work.

What can Ukraine learn from Estonia?

Florian Marcus

You just mentioned the X-Road just for I mean, we have plenty of avid listeners who will know what the X-Road is just in case I will say, you know, that’s the data exchange and data transfer mechanism that works in Estonia and almost similarly in Ukraine. Although I would say that in Ukraine, it has a more poetic name. It’s called Trembita. I’m probably butchering that pronunciation, but it refers to, I think, an ancient instrument for communication or across the mountain ranges. So a very nice image for that kind of technology. But when we look at President Zelenskiy’s promise of the state on a smartphone, where do you think Ukraine can still learn from Estonia at this point and perhaps also from all the experience that Ukraine has made by now? Where can Estonia learn a bit from Ukraine?

Jaanika Merilo

I think it’s almost that Estonia could start learning from Ukraine.

Florian Marcus

I’m sure that there is something to learn. Yeah, absolutely. Tell us, yes.

Jaanika Merilo

For example, I hate this ID-card. I hate plugging it in. Having the wire and the whole concept is so ancient, I’m really sorry. So basically the idea is to have my smartphone, I have my government on here, I like it very much. Yeah, including that Estonians say like, Oh, you were. All you need is an I.D. card. No, all you need is basically a mobile phone and all your documents are there. So I would say that e-Estonia also needs to step up a little bit and to leave these heritage solutions not behind. But let’s say, implement also new solutions because really, for example, the e-ticketing transport in public transport. It was implemented first in Ukraine by Ridango and then in Estonia because Ukrainians were like: “OK, why do I need to have the step between? We have contactless bank cards. Why should we be like putting it in somewhere or have the [smart card] readers? So I think I would very much like to have this wireless solution, a mobile phone-based solution not like my desktop, my government, in a desktop, basically.

Florian Marcus

Now I will have to defend the ID card. Here it is, especially in the winter. It is excellent for scratching ice off your car. But no, of course, you’re right that you know, applications and digital-based services are becoming much more attractive and also an ever-growing part of the population knows how to use them. So very generally, it will become more accessible to more people over time.

On the user interfaces in Estonia

Jaanika Merilo 

And also the user interfaces. Oh my God. Sometimes in Estonia, there are quite ancient things from the times that were developed. And even when you have some upgrades, let’s say a few weeks, then some solution is from a year ago, and something else from 10 years ago and it’s mixed all together. It’s like mixing the heritage with not really upgraded new with something upgraded. Let’s say, for example, e-health or, you know, like e-Estonia, it’s quite a mix of different solutions, interfaces, and so on.

Florian Marcus

When you mentioned that point, I was thinking of two examples. Number one, the e-health system, which was brought online in 2008, and then of course, the services have been added over time. That’s where you can see the sort of one is a bit more user-friendly than the other. But the layout itself is still from 2008, and I believe it is under development by some Estonian companies right now. There is an update to be expected soon. One point or one portal that used to be also on the tricky side in terms of user-friendliness, but has recently been updated was the business registry. These things take time to renew. I fully agree. And so there are different, I guess, advantages and disadvantages to being an early or a late mover and adopter. And so exactly as I said, Ukraine can just skip technology, ID card, and mobile ID SIM card if they want to. So this is the luxury that you guys have right now.

Jaanika Merilo

And you mentioned the business registry – no open data, which means it has to fetch and request and so on. So this is also like a big block where Ukraine is working very hard to create everything in open data format to open as much information as possible. The e-procurement system, really, was the best in the world according to different competitions. So, yes, Ukraine has the advantage of a late mover.

Florian Marcus

Yeah. So there’s plenty to learn on both sides. And I think I mean, that’s very encouraging overall because the more different countries have different good sides to show, the better the service quality in the world will be. I’m sure.

What is cyber attack attribution and how does it work?

Florian Marcus

If we look at the current political situation, of course, it’s still very much fluid right now. We don’t quite know where things are going. But I wanted to tackle this from the side of cybersecurity and cyber attacks. Just a couple of months ago Estonia had the presidency in the United Nations Security Council, and as part of that, the focus was very much on, you know, cyber-attack attribution and also putting the digital sphere in the context of international law. You know – what constitutes an attack?

I think it’s fair to say that this work has not been completed because it does take more than a month and just a couple of days ago, a Ukrainian ministry website and so on were under attack as well by a country that shall not be named. We officially don’t know where the attackers come from, but so I guess the question is what can we do to address digital attacks in the modern age? Is there something where NATO should step up? Is this something that only the U.N. can solve or is it something that every country has to decide for itself? How does this work help us?

Jaanika Merilo

Well, the country that we don’t name or are living by messages of cyberwar, or hybrid warfare. Let’s say it consists of several parts – information warfare, cyberwar, and classical warfare. And because of the attacks in Estonia in 2007, it was considered really the first cyberwar in the world by the country we don’t name. Because of that, Estonia established its Cyber Security Defence Center basically. I liked the idea by general Kert who said – we don’t have the biggest army but what we can do is to defend our country, which is not only in physical space but also in cyberspace.

Jaanika Merilo

And so basically the strategy of NATO’s created in Estonia, let’s say welcome to. So definitely it’s like in parallel, while they’re creating the electronic resources, you should also protect them because it’s all about basically data security and so on. But is definitely both basically creating the national strategy with the help of the international, let’s say, partners.

Ukraine has received lots of help, especially lately, but it’s also still a national issue, basically, because every country defends itself, and especially when it comes down to not only the country but the regional development and regional defence, because one thing is to have a CERT – a central government regulatory authority. But then again, you have lots of sector-based solutions. You have lots of regional data centres and so on. So what you also noticed is that it’s not enough that you have one government CERT…

Florian Marcus

Just very quickly – Computer Emergency Response Teams, just for those that are not in the know of all the cool IT lingo, yes. Sorry, continue.

Jaanika Merilo 

Yeah, sorry. So basically every. Let’s say everyone who creates their own information centers should be able to protect them. And I think it’s a very nice concept that e-Estonia has the Cyber League. Meaning that the I.T. professionals, the volunteers, and the companies are also welcome to react to different threats to test, try to penetrate the system, to kind of participate in this testing and development of the system.

And I very much like this concept of different CERTS where the private sector participates. And this is why what Ukraine is right now working on is not the only government because the government has always liked limited resources. It’s about engaging the best from the field as well. So creating this front of volunteers, professionals, government, I.T., education centres, and so on.

Florian Marcus

I think it’s quite fittingly called a cyber militia in Estonia and if memory serves me right. The first search that was created in Estonia was to do with the financial sector and then later integrated, you know, from the government side. So to have this overview of the threat landscape for both critical infrastructure providers from the private sector and then also the public sector is really, really important to make sure that you know what’s going on in your country. So I fully agree.

Jaanika Merilo

This is a very important point also that Ukraine is also, let’s say, having tough times because of our neighbour. Which means that Ukraine is constantly under attack in regards to critical resources, in regards to showing what could be done and so on. So, for example, like during 2021, there were almost 200,000 attacks on Ukrainian information systems. And if you can imagine, like all the banks, all the infrastructure – like electricity, ports, airports, there are a huge number of systems that should be protected and critical information systems. So it’s quite a challenge.

Florian Marcus

You’ve got all kinds of what’s sometimes referred to as SCADA systems. So whether it’s critical dam infrastructure where if you had the right server that you can open the floodgates or something. There’s a lot of crazy stuff that can be done with cyber-attacks these days.

Jaanika Merilo

Because even like a few years ago, it was like the attack of Petya, NotPetya, WannaCry and so on. It was huge. And I remember very well the day when even the bank ATMs were down. So basically, the big systems are down, and it was even a joke that my good friend, the Head of Ukrainian Post, was laughing that we have almost zero down because we have zero digital.

Florian Marcus

It’s all good. If it’s all paper, then you know, no problems! Yeah, I mean, WannaCry and all these ransomware attacks, that was a time where a lot of countries, not just Ukraine, but also others very quickly noticed:1) how fragile the digital world can be if it is not taken care of. 2) the aspect of cyber hygiene, such as teaching individuals not to click on email x and so on. This sounds ridiculous to people like us, but…

Jaanika Merilo

No, it’s always the human factor! The weakest link is the human factor.

What is Funderbeam?

Florian Marcus

But perhaps moving on from the digital and physical destruction to building digital and physical things up. You are also working for Funderbeam. Could you tell us what that is, what it does and what you do?

Jaanika Merilo

Absolutely love it. And I’m truly happy about working there. It’s very cool, basically almost a stock exchange or a marketplace for early growth companies. Which means that basically Nasdaq in big stock exchanges, you can only trade and buy shares of the huge companies. But Funderbeam enables you to buy and sell shares 24/7 of the young companies like very cool I.T. companies. So you can be part of this growth story. Yeah, and I’m basically responsible for PR and comms, which means to have the message out and be heard that many cool companies are waiting for investors. And it’s possible to fundraise. The traits of the system are global. We have 11 countries represented in the marketplace.

Florian Marcus

I mean, you made it into the best podcast in the world. So now you have the right audience for, for these kinds of things.

Jaanika Merilo

This is why I’m trying to get everything in as many as possible Marketplace companies.

Florian Marcus

You’re doing great. Is Estonia one of these countries that is part of Funderbeam?

Jaanika Merilo

Yes, it’s Estonia, the U.K., Finland, Denmark, Singapore, Croatia, and over 60 companies. And it’s really cool technology. We have built this mall as an almost stock exchange alternative, which is like a huge tech behind it. Let’s say to have it up and running and clearing 24/7. It’s like even the Nasdaq is open only certain hours. 

The next unicorns from Estonia and Ukraine

Florian Marcus

Now I do have two more questions for you. Number one, if you had to name the three next start-ups from Estonia and from Ukraine, they would become, in your opinion, unicorns. Which ones would they be?

Jaanika Merilo

Oh my God, I cannot name from the Funderbeam. I’m not supposed to, you know. So that’s almost unfair because I definitely know two of them. OK?

Florian Marcus

Would it be OK to ask about Ukraine, though, seeing as it’s not part of the portfolio for now?

Jaanika Merilo

Yes, I think actually that they might even come not only from the startup sector, meaning that, for example, from Ukraine there is Grammarly, Depositphotos, and so on. They might even come from the big software houses because actually, it might even sound strange. But the big I.T. companies there are really, really big. So, for example, United Sector, works like 300000 people and the I.T. houses like in Estonia Helmes, Nortal or so on. They have maybe 1000 employees, 1500.

Florian Marcus

Let’s say that counts as a big company in Estonia. 

Jaanika Merilo

Yes, it does. But in Ukraine, it’s like 10000. So I think some unicorns might come from this really strong export-oriented sector as well. We have three-four lined up.

Florian Marcus

That was a wonderfully diplomatic answer. Excellent.

What can Estonians do to help out the current situation in Eastern Europe?

Florian Marcus

Now I do have one last question as promised. And that’s a very simple one. Taking into consideration the current situation in Eastern Europe, what can Estonians and listeners of this podcast do to help out?

Jaanika Merilo

Depends. Means that it’s always nice to have some professional partnerships, which means if you’re working in IT, there are definitely many, many ways to cooperate with Ukrainian companies, how to find this little outsourcing source, and so on. But still, you know, it’s the small things that matter. Basically, when you see some Ukrainian friend in the newsfeed, just say something in Ukrainian like Slava Ukraine just post blue.yellow heart. That’s enough that it will make her happy, basically. So the small things really are showing some signs of attention when you find some, I don’t know, drink food in the shop, which has a Ukrainian label, just make a social media post and say hi to Ukraine. Really small things matter. It’s about unity and support.

Florian Marcus

As with digitalisation, so also in international friendships, both the big and the small things very much matter. Jaanika, thank you so much for being with us today! To all our listeners at home . I hope you enjoyed our conversation and if you have any more questions, I’m sure that you will also be able to find Jaanika on various social media outlets where she is contactable. But yes, thank you so much, Jaanika, for your time!

Jaanika Merilo

Thank you for all the attention to Ukraine, Funderbeam and startups that I’m very much in love with.

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