Taavi Kotka

Taavi Kotka

Taavi Kotka can describe a digital society in which 98 percent of government business is paperless, everyone is identified and connected on line, and people can contribute to the country even if they don’t live in it.

He can describe it because he lives in such a place.

Kotka is the Chief Information Officer of Estonia, a former Soviet republic that has been a pioneer in digitizing government operations and the working of society. He has developed links with New Brunswick through the work of such entrepreneurs as David Alston, CIO at IntroHive, and Greg Hemmings, the founder of Hemmings House film studio in Saint John.

Last week, Kotka spoke at the Big Data Congress in Saint John, outlining his country’s development of the digital society. And he said it begins with a mindset that is open to new ways of perceiving citizenship and the people who contribute to a society.

“Estonians are not just people who live in Estonia,” Kotka said in his speech to about 600 delegates. “It’s people who share the same values. Even if you take Estonia away, we will do whatever it takes to act as Estonians.”

The first pillar of Estonia’s digital citizenship is everyone has a digital name. This code is accepted in all government departments, and by private companies and academic institutions. It stays with someone throughout his or her life. But you don’t have to live in Estonia to have the digital name. They are retained by emigrants, and people who don’t live in the country but have businesses there also have them.

“The main idea is to focus on who is connected with your society,” Kotka said in an interview. “The old-fashioned way is to look at only who is living in your country. … If you don’t connect with the people who can contribute to your economy, you can lose them. But they can still be contributors.

“We have been developing our society with the goal that even if you are abroad you can still be part of the society.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, he said It was clear to authorities that it was physically impossible to for the government to serve people in the country, especially in in the outlying areas. Therefore, the solution was to push people to use internet for government services.

Alston is in the vanguard of the movement to develop such a society in New Brunswick. But Kotka, trying to choose his words diplomatically, said many countries first have to change their mindset before they consider such a move. He noted that the first question from the Saint John audience was about privacy concerns. Privacy concerns are legitimate, he said, but they should be overshadowed by the opportunities of the digital revolution.

And he added that digital health records, for example, can be more secure than those printed on paper because there is a record of everyone who accesses digital documents.

“You share the same problem as other Anglo-Saxon countries,” he said, apologizing for referring to bilingual Canada as an English country. “You struggle with a legacy, and not a technological legacy but a mindset legacy.”