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eStonia
February 9, 2014 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, might just have the most technologically forward-thinking government around.
posted by gman (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the article:
Estonia uses a very simple, unique ID methodology across all systems, from your paper passport to bank records to any government office or hospital. A citizen with personal ID code 37501011234 is a male born in the 20th century (3), on January 1st of year '75, as baby #123 of that day. The number ends with a computational checksum to easily detect typos.
Is it just my ignorance or is the checksum a brilliant idea?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:21 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


credit card numbers have something like like a checksum to detect bogus numbers and transposition errors. it's called the luhn algorithm.
posted by bruceo at 1:37 PM on February 9 [5 favorites]


The Singing Revolution (previously)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:38 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Sweden use the format YYYYMMDD-NNNC where the third N is also your gender (even=female, odd=male) and C is the checksum. The drawback of this type of SSN is that it makes certain types of fraud and privacy invasions easy because getting access to people's SSN is trivial online.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:40 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


The drawback of this type of SSN is that it makes certain types of fraud and privacy invasions easy because getting access to people's SSN is trivial online.

That need not be an issue, the same way that your name is also an identifier that is easy for people to get access to, yet your name is not a security threat to yourself. The USA fucked up by having a bunch of companies use SSN's as identifiers while a bunch use it as proof of identity. Everyone knows that your name and password are meant to be different.
posted by anonymisc at 1:51 PM on February 9 [14 favorites]


Not only is the income tax rate in the country a flat 21%

Hmm. Can't decide is this whole system sounds incredible or like a rich techno-libertarian's wet dream.
posted by supercres at 2:08 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


The article parallels the long-held beliefs about having wrecked infrastructure post-WWII in Europe, which is why the most damaged countries now have the coolest trains and metros. Being able to start from scratch is nice. Having to start from scratch is an entirely different animal, and it seems to result in systems that work.
posted by jet_silver at 2:27 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


I'd put it slightly differently: the fact that someone can ruin my credit rating simply by knowing my name and my unique identifier is incompetence (on the part of those who extend credit and rate one for credit) indistinguishable from malice.
posted by idiopath at 2:31 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]


And only having a population of 1.3 or 1.4 million makes a lot of things much more manageable.

The one downside to an "online" country: those who can't afford a computer, let alone internet access, are left out of so much of daily life.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:32 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


Though I assume it would be easier and cheaper to fund computer access centers / libraries than to run all the many, many more brick and mortar offices that would be required to do it the traditional way.
posted by the jam at 2:43 PM on February 9


supercres, it's the only thing close the libertarians have to what they think is a model for success. However, Estonia has lost 15% of it's population since 1990 and receives billions in euros from neighboring states, and it's pretty tiny. Additionally, Estonia has a single payer health care system and public funding of most education. And compared to their neighbors, Estonia is quite a blip on the radar. It's surrounded by wealthier nations with more progressive big government policies that they depend on for trade, such as Finland, Denmark, Germany, and so on.

So I couldn't tell you why libertarians are so proud of Estonia, but I'm guessing like many of their other ideas, it's because they believe they are right, so there's no point in finding out if they are actually right.

That is not to say Estonia is doing poorly, but when there's a country next door with 80 million people that is also the world's second largest exporter, why pick Estonia as a potential example to follow for the United States? Not that I would mind the government health care and education system...
posted by deanklear at 2:45 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


supercres: "Can't decide is this whole system sounds incredible or like a rich techno-libertarian's wet dream."

A floor wax and a dessert topping!
posted by chavenet at 2:50 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


I spent a few days with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Aspen Institute a couple of years ago, at a technology event. He held his own just fine in discussions, and was able to talk comfortably about fairly sophisticated technical concepts. (I recall a discussion of public key encryption, in specific.) Technological cluefulness goes clear to the top in Estonia.
posted by waldo at 2:59 PM on February 9 [7 favorites]


The article parallels the long-held beliefs about having wrecked infrastructure post-WWII in Europe, which is why the most damaged countries now have the coolest trains and metros. Being able to start from scratch is nice. Having to start from scratch is an entirely different animal, and it seems to result in systems that work.

Unfortunately this is not true for Russia, although I hear the Moscow Metro has some beautiful stations.
posted by pravit at 3:09 PM on February 9


It's surrounded by wealthier nations with more progressive big government policies that they depend on for trade, such as Finland, Denmark, Germany, and so on.

So I couldn't tell you why libertarians are so proud of Estonia, but I'm guessing like many of their other ideas, it's because they believe they are right, so there's no point in finding out if they are actually right.

That is not to say Estonia is doing poorly, but when there's a country next door with 80 million people that is also the world's second largest exporter, why pick Estonia as a potential example to follow for the United States? Not that I would mind the government health care and education system...


More fair to compare Estonia to to its actual neighbours (and actual cohort), Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Poland.

Compared to Lithuania and Latvia, which started out from the same place, Estonia is doing pretty well, and Estonia also enjoyed its success well before being accepted into the EU. Skype, Kazaa, etc.

Economic growth is pretty similar to that of Poland, yet another former Eastern-bloc country that does not conform to progressive and liberal ideals of what a "free" country ought to be like.

And in any event, joining the EU seems to be more curse than blessing, post-2008.

I don't see what the point is about quibbling about made-up labels like "libertarianism." If the system works, it works.

Due to birthright, my sons qualify for Estonian citizenship (we are ethnic Estonians, as opposed to German Estonians or ethnic Russians) and I intend to see them get it.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:52 PM on February 9 [5 favorites]


Unfortunately this is not true for Russia, although I hear the Moscow Metro has some beautiful stations.

It doesn't work for totalitarian states, where the already present infrastructure of repression makes suppressing any sparks of open dissent a more economical option than spending money on providing the people with more than the bare minimum.

OTOH, given that only the well connected had cars, the bare minimum in the Communist world was usually far more comprehensive public transport systems (albeit ones lacking in comfort) than in the motoring West. One can see an illustration of this in the Berlin tramway network, which stops abruptly at the location of the Wall.
posted by acb at 3:59 PM on February 9


Not only is the income tax rate in the country a flat 21%

What's the GINI index? Do they have any other redistributive mechanisms to mitigate the lack of a progressive income tax?
posted by acb at 4:00 PM on February 9


What's the GINI index?

Wikipedia: 31.3% (2010)

Quite good. It makes sense to me that they would choose to rebuild the country with a small technologically advanced system of government that facilitates libertarian free-enterprise while providing public health, public education, and a decent social safety net - especially considering their experience with the Soviet Union.
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:14 PM on February 9


Interesting bit further down on privacy: evidently they can't block access to the government or police, but can always see who has accessed their data: "If an honest citizen finds any official checking on their stuff without valid reason, they can file an inquiry and get them fired."

Of course that assumes you are honest--it might be different if they look you up for no good reason but find something ...
posted by TreeRooster at 4:15 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Estonian GINI coefficient is something like 32 in 2012.

Not great, but better than, say, Portugal, and undoubtedly influenced by the large ethnic Russian population in an otherwise small population. Russians have not been integrated into Estonian society since independence (you have to speak Estonian to qualify for jobs and training; most if not all of these ethnic Russians arrived post-1945, and some of them live in my Grandmother's house).
posted by KokuRyu at 4:15 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


So basically it's the opposite of Elbonia?
posted by w0mbat at 4:37 PM on February 9


Eurassia?
posted by mochapickle at 6:15 PM on February 9


"Yes, the circumstances of the Estonian story are special by many means. The country emerged to re-independence from 50 unfortunate years of Soviet occupation in 1991, having skipped a lot of technological legacy the Western world had built up during '60-'80s, such as checkbooks and mainframe computers and jumped right into the mid-nineties bandwagon of TCP-IP enabled web apps. During this social reset, Estonians also decided to throw their former communist leaders overboard and elected new leadership - with ministers in their late twenties from whom one can expect disruptive thinking."

Sort of like what was elluded to above with the post WWII rebuilding, but much more interesting to me. It's very interesting to see how quickly people can adopt technology if it's their first exposure to it. Seeing people in SE Asia jump on smart phones while my middle aged friends in the states still cling to their Nokia bricks is odd.

It's almost as though there is a sort of interference between similar technologies when adopting new norms. Nobody I know in SE Asia ever owned a land line, so there's no lag time in switching to smart phones. Nobody I know in SE Asia ever had dial up, so nobody clings to it. There's not even a vestigial old technology infrastructure to muck things up. There aren't any old people writing cheques in the express line at the grocery store either.

In the other hand, people are still afraid of escalators, so I'm not so sure.
posted by Telf at 6:36 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


In the other hand, people are still afraid of escalators, so I'm not so sure.

As long as you're careful not to operate machinery like an escalator while wearing loose clothing, escalators are perfectly safe.

Oh. Be careful with shoelaces and where you put your feet.

Aside from that, perfectly safe.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:30 PM on February 9


I'm from a land called Secret Estonia
Nobody knows where it's at
Ice cream mountains and chocolate skies
Cinnamon houses and licorice flies

posted by Evilspork at 8:10 PM on February 9


During this social reset, Estonians also decided to throw their former communist leaders overboard and elected new leadership

The Communist era was quite harrowing in Estonia. The language nearly died, and the beautiful country because a combined toxic-waste dump and Russian military base (or, basically, the same thing).

Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections" deals with the post Cold War history pretty effectively...
posted by KokuRyu at 10:43 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Harrowing is too mild a word, I think. My great-grandmother's stories of the Reds and Whites would make your blood run cold.

Considering that the Soviet goal was to erase everything that made Estonians themselves, it's near miraculous so much survived - moreso that their successful bid for independence was nonviolent.
posted by cmyk at 3:12 AM on February 10


My great grandfather was a quartermaster in the Tsar's army, stationed in Tomsk (a lot of Estonians ended up there), mostly because Estonians could read and write.

Anyway, in 1919 when, with the help of President Wilson, Estonia was established, my great grandparents and my grandmother travelled across Siberia and Russia to reach Estonia.

The war left a lot of psychic scars on my grandmother.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:02 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]


Stories like this are always amusing to read. In part, this is because they tend to neglect the usual SNAFUs that accompany the transmission to any new system (the transmission to the E-Health system touted in the article being the most painful). Mostly, though, it's because you get so used to considering these services a part of modern information society that you can't imagine people in the more "developed" countries living without them and using the terribly kludgy systems they actually use.

It's also interesting to compare the Estonian IT systems with its neighbours', who have not been half as enthusiastic to embrace the e-governemnt mentality. My computer scientist friends have speculated that this is simply due to the different specializations of the CS departments in the countries' leading universities: e.g., the Latvians have been focussing on quantum computing while in Estonia, cryptography has always been the big thing. So the story goes that the whole e-government thing was not born out of any real-life demand but because some people with skills of little apparent practical value (especially in the early dot-com days) needed - and found - a way to market themselves.

Of course this also means that once the Latvians get their quantum computers running, we'll be the ones left with hugely inefficient and kludgy systems.
posted by daniel_charms at 5:32 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]


That seems to be a little deterministic. I also think that Estonia has been helped by its closer relationship with Sweden and Finland compared to its other Baltic neighbours. BTW, Lithuania also has a flat tax.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:20 PM on February 10


Not only is the income tax rate in the country a flat 21%

What's the GINI index? Do they have any other redistributive mechanisms to mitigate the lack of a progressive income tax?
-- acb

In the US many of the wealthy re-arrange things so that their income comes through capital gains. For example, Romney, while he was CEO of Bain Capital, was taxed at a rate of 14%. This would not have been possible if his pay had been salary based.

So I'll take a real flat tax any day. It is, in effect, far less regressive than what we have now in the US. But that's a little bit like asking for unicorns and rainbows.
posted by eye of newt at 9:41 PM on February 10


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