copy the linklink copied!Chapter 13. Case Study 8: Estonia e-government and the creation of a comprehensive data infrastructure for public services and agriculture policies implementation

The case study objective is to give a practical example of how a government can build data infrastructure for the provision of public services, including the registration and payment of subsidies in the agriculture sector. The case of Estonia is of particular interest as 99% of their public services are accessible online via a one-time login gateway.


copy the linklink copied!Review of the e-Estonia initiative and its use for agriculture policy implementation

The following is based on interviews with Oliver Väärtnõu, CEO of Cybernetica, a private company which has been developing the data infrastructure for the Estonian Government, and Mr Ahti Bleive, Deputy Director, Estonian Agricultural Registers and Information Board (ARIB – Estonian Paying Agency) Estonia, and responsible for the project SATIKAS that will enable to verify whether the grasslands have been mowed by using satellite data. Along with processing applications for aid, one of ARIB’s duties is to maintain national registers – the register of farm animals and the register of agricultural support and land parcels. The study has benefited from on-line information about the e-Estonia initiative.1

copy the linklink copied!The creation of a digital infrastructure in Estonia

The development of the Estonian e-Government is based on the Principles of the Estonian Information Policy, adopted by the Estonian Parliament in 1998. Through this, the government initiated a digital transformation to increase efficiency of its processes as well as how efficiently it delivers public services. In addition to a full coverage for digital mobile phone networks in the country2 and ensuring a secure data exchange environment, the Estonian government made two critical technology choices, which supported this digital transformation and referred to as interoperability enablers.

The first was the choice to create, early on, a digital identity (ID-card). This ID-card was made compulsory and was considered as a way to recognise individuals in the digital world, being the key allowing the real world to match the digital. The card is issued by the government and was made a mandatory document. The adoption was also facilitated by Estonian banks, which heavily invested in e-Banking and were using the e-ID card as a way to access their services. The system is based on cryptographic keys, with a personal key, which used as the primary key in the majority of databases containing personal information. In particular, it can be used in the public key infrastructure (PKI), for authentication and signatures identification. The state undertakes to assure the existence and functioning of the public key infrastructure.

  • The Police and Border Guard Board is issuing personal (digital) identity documents enabling secure electronic authentication and digital signing (ID-card or another smart card).

  • The Ministry of the Interior drafts legislation that determines the types and requirements for the digital identity documents.

  • The Information System Authority (RIA) develop software applications necessary for using the PKI (ID-card middleware including drivers, utility and client software).

  • Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (Department of State Information Systems): determines the quality.

eID-cards can also be stored on smartphones using a special SIM card enabling the use of a mobile ID. In Estonia, a digital signature has similar juridical power than a written one.

The second choice was to develop the X-Road, the data management infrastructure. In the name of efficiency, data management is often centralised, meaning putting all the data together in a single digital facility. Such option has the advantage to facilitate access to data and to be cheaper. This is the reason why small countries usually decide to adopt such systems. However, it also create vulnerabilities and increases the risks: hackers would only have to attack one facility to access all data, making it a potentially lucrative exercise.

Estonia innovated in choosing a decentralised system. However, such systems are usually confronted by issues of inter-systems connectivity, resulting in duplication of data storage or harvest when sharing is not possible, ultimately resulting in higher costs. To solve and avoid those constraints, the Estonian government innovated, in a decentralised linked government data infrastructure, the XRoad. To make sure that government bodies would all adopt this strategy, a law was passed stipulating that the same information should not be asked twice. Agencies looking for some information should go directly to the agency holding the data.3 This access is secured by cryptography and information about the exchanges is referenced.

The proof of concept was tested in 2004 and then they started building the ecosystem. The first application was internet voting in 2005. The uptake slowly increased. In 2015, 19.6% of the eligible voters voted on-line, representing 30.5% of the participating voters. In March 2019, the numbers were 27.9% and 43.9%, respectively.4 Also, votes can now be made from anywhere in the world. In 2015, votes were received from 116 countries. In 2019, it reached 143 countries.

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Box 13.1. Some figures about costs and benefits of digitalisation in Estonia

Digital transformation is an overarching process. It started in Estonia with first applications early 2000 and Estonia’s administration applies a principle of digital-by-default. It is therefore difficult to extract some distinct comparative figures about the cost benefit of this process. However, a few indicators are available: 99% of Estonia’s public services are online, 98% of Estonian nationals use eID-s, which are used to produce more than 10 million digital signatures per year. The use of the data exchange layer, X-Road, saved Estonian administration 804 working years compared to previous calendar years and it is estimated that using the electronic signature saves 2% of the Estonian GDP each year. The ICT sector forms about 7% of Estonia’s GDP.

On the cost side, Estonia spends approximately 1.1% to 1.3% of the state budget on digitalisation. The actual need is around 1.5%. In comparison, the same number in Finland is 1.4% but in Denmark is 2.4%.


copy the linklink copied!Application in the case of agriculture policy and regulations

The Estonian paying agency has been using satellite imaging and remote sensing since 2005. Controls were then increasingly automatised from 2011, before Sentinel data arrived and provided more detailed images. Access to data from Sentinel allowed further automation of processes. Automation of processes is mostly for mowing requirements, specifying that mowing has occurred before or after certain dates. While more flexibility might be provided to this requirement to match environmental realities better (see case study on meadow birds’ supervision) mowing data is a requirement that is often violated. Accordingly to EC requirements EU-wide, only 5% of fields are physically checked on site by controllers. With remote sensing and automation of processes, this percentage reaches 100%, meaning that all the monitoring can now be done remotely, by detecting the changes in biomass. Information is based on GIS data, entered by the farmers and checked by the agency availing it to all farmers registered.

Beyond this example a broader range of digital services are now available to farmers, including digital registers. For instance, farmers can provide information about birth of an animal, whether they are moving their pack, etc. In other words, all types of information that previously had to be recorded on paper can now be recorded on line.

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Table 13.1. Uptake of the animal register e-services since 2006




% E-service

% Paper based

% E-service

% Paper based





























































(12.08.) 2018





Note: Documents can be birth or veterinary certificates. Events can be the movement of the pack to another location, etc.

Source: Communication from the Estonian Agricultural Registers and Information Board.

In order to support the shift from paper to digital, the government launched different advertising campaigns to communicate its advantages to farmers, including a more rapid identification and treatment of errors. Advice services explaining how to fill documents on line are free and was very welcomed by farmers. The system relieved farmers from some administrative burden and from the potential time previously needed to rectify errors in the documentation when occurring. In addition, as administrative processes are managed faster, payments are more rapidly transferred to farmers.

The LPIS (land parcel identification system) and animal data are also used by statistical offices and for the cadastre system as well as by the environment agency, allowing conducting cross checks with different agencies. For example, in the case of investment measures, it is possible to check whether the applicant is in debt or has taxation problems. In general, this system is well accepted as most of the time, its purpose is to provide support. In the case of the environment ministry, the administration can get access to useful information on livestock systems, and in particular on manure.

Ministry of Rural Affairs has initiated a feasibility study for development of agricultural big data system. The aim is to create a central electronic system to link and integrate existing data with analytical models and practical applications. Data linked in this system must be harmonised, compatible, updated, linked to spatial data, transferable from the producer to the system and from the system to the producer enabling access to potential models/applications.

The system will provide useful practical information flow for the farm management decisions (e.g. machine-readable data for the precision farming machinery). The system will also enable to collect more precise farm data with less effort. This improves the quality of statistical data and enables more comprehensive analyses.

The study includes the assessment of the needs and roles of stakeholders, assessment of data storage systems and evaluation of existing data quality. The proposed concept of the big data system will include the technical, legal and economical analyse and the roadmap for implementation of such system. The project includes trainings for the farmers to explain the potential of the use of big data for farm management decisions, to introduce the practical applications and models for that purpose and to demonstrate the technologies for precision farming.

This one-year duration project started in September 2018. The next phase will be the implementation of the system based on the results of the feasibility study.

copy the linklink copied!Lessons learned from the development of a government data infrastructure and use in agriculture

Efficiency gains for both citizens and the government is the objective of the digitalisation of government services in Estonia. This infrastructure was not implemented in a piece meal manner, and rather was built as a comprehensive, open but secured and flexible way. The lessons learned in this case study are more about the questioning and elements to consider when creating such infrastructure. The implementation was successful, but was nevertheless confronted by challenges, which can serve as learning material for other OECD countries.

Lesson 1. The implementation of Estonia data infrastructure required the government to rethink the way it was operating, as well as its role and what problems the previous government administration organisation was facing

One of the first questions was about the way to create interoperability between government agencies, previously operating in silos and with their own system. It was important to ensure the protection of government data and who had access to it. Estonia dealt with such problems using a decentralised system and cryptography, but also by using the blockchain. All information about any request for information is registered on the blockchain and citizens are able to check who, and when, accesses their data.

The other question was how to make government data more useful to citizens and in the case explored here, to farmers. If the role of the government is to gather relevant information for the use of policy implementation, is it also the role of the government to expand their database to information that is not directly of use to the government but can be for farmers when combined with government data? Enabling private sector access to government data brings the questions of data ownership. However, in practice, the question is more about data use and what data will be used for then about data ownership. It is envisaged that in Estonia, the data management system could be based on an agreement per data type by farmers. The data infrastructure created by Estonia, clearly identifying who accessed data could enable the creation of such system.

Lesson 2. The creation of a data infrastructure requires creating a setting and a regulatory environment guaranteeing trust in the new system

Data security is taken very seriously in Estonia and is considered to be the most important feature allowing the Estonian digital society to function. Anyone with a social security code can look up their information online, see who has accessed their data and when. It is also possible to ask about any single query, which allows for a higher trust in the services. The rare occurrence of data privacy violation have been treated as important offences to serve as a deterrent.

  • Legislation including a range of acts created the core principles of the development of the Estonian e-government. Some were adopted by the Estonian parliament as early as in 1998, then reviewed and updated in 2006 in the course of preparing the Estonian Information Society Strategy 2013 Public Information Act

  • Digital Signatures Act

  • Archives Act

  • Population Register Act

  • Identity Documents Act

  • Personal Data Protection Act

  • Information Society Services Act

  • Electronic Communications Act

  • Public Procurement Act

  • State Secrets and Foreign Classified Information Act

One of the core principles is that the public sector is leading the way for the development of what is more broadly referred to as the information society, but developments are in co-operation between the public, private and third sector. Therefore, and in order to reassure the Estonian society about the use of their data, a range of acts have been passed to ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms and rights, personal data and identity. In particular, individuals are the owners of their personal data and they have an opportunity to control how their personal data are used.

Lesson 3. Providing the right incentives with flexibility to implement change and avoid barriers to adoption, both within the government and between the government and citizens

In Estonia, the regulatory environment has been used to set the incentive for the implementation and use of the e-government by government agencies, by centralising policy development, letting the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication develop the principles of information policies and supportive legislation, also taking responsibility for supervision of relevant state organisations starting from 1993. Then the implementation was decentralised, with e-Government developments done mainly by responsible ministries and state agencies. Accordingly, every government department, ministry or business, gets to choose its own technology, based on commonly agreed principles.

It appears that in the case of Estonia, there have been few barriers to adoption, whether from the institutional side or from the users. Various reasons explain this, including the population size making implementation more straightforward and communication about initiatives more efficient. On the agriculture side, the fact that data provided by farmers is used to provide support, and not only, like in other countries, to verify that farmers comply with regulations, had an important role in the level of adoption. But so did the support to farmers in getting to know the platforms and the additional on-line services compared to paper-based communication (revision of documents, etc.) provided by government bodies.


Vial, F., Székács, A., and Quealy, S. (2018), digital transformation of animal health data: proceedings of the AHEAD 2017 Workshop. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5, 111. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00111

Kärner, K. (2017), The Future of Agriculture is Digital: Showcasting eEstonia, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 4: 151. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2017.00151.


← 1. E-Governance in practice,

← 2. 100% advanced 3G mobile broadband coverage.

← 3. This is a principle that also applied in the European Commission: the “once only” principle.

← 4.

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Chapter 13. Case Study 8: Estonia e-government and the creation of a comprehensive data infrastructure for public services and agriculture policies implementation