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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

"If the Internet was reborn as a country, it would be Estonia" -Part I

Forbes recently wrote about Estonia that totally floored me. What Estonia seems to have done is way beyond what can be even imagined to come out of a country which acheived independence just 13 years back: Excerpts with edits and my comments added:

It proved to be a lucky break for Estonia that the Soviet Union took such pains to dampen any yearnings for freedom in the Baltic States. It meant that Estonian universities were not allowed to offer too many courses in philosophy and the social sciences. Philosophy is a dangerous thing among a patriotic people longing for the brief independence they lost. What did the Soviets want Estonians to study instead? Computer science, cybernetics, artificial intelligence and information technology. Estonians did much of the software programming and development for the Soviet space program, not to mention the KGB. The Soviets placed one of their most important centers of AI research near the capital city of Tallinn.

There are only 1.4 million Estonians in a country a little bigger than Holland. Half of it is covered in forest. But beneath the trees Estonia hums. With virtually no outmoded infrastructure to weigh them down, the resourceful Estonians have constructed a kind of e-republic that has already outpaced many of its new, much richer European neighbors.
- Internet and mobile phone usage per capita, for instance, is higher in Estonia than it is in France.

- Over half of all Estonians now pay for their street parking spaces automatically, using their mobile phones. The same system flopped when Estonian Mobile Telephone's technology was marketed in Oslo, which is not exactly backward technologically.

- And Swedish companies often test ideas first in Estonia, since Estonians are known to have a heartier appetite for change than even the forward-thinking Swedes.

- 52% of Estonians use the Net regularly.

- The government runs its Thursday-morning cabinet meetings on computer, and it is close to doing away with paper altogether. Sessions that used to take most of a day now take half an hour as ministers politely tap out their comments instead of grandstanding.

- Next year the official record of government business will no longer be printed on paper, except for a single copy for the archives. It will exist solely on the Web.

- Two years ago Estonia introduced an optional smart ID card that is making documents and money obsolete in a growing range of public and private transactions. An Estonian can use it instead of a passport to travel within the EU, to get on the bus and subway and to file taxes with a card reader attached to his computer (refunds in five days for the electronic filers, several months for the paper filers).

- "I rarely sign pieces of paper anymore," says Sten Hansson, the information adviser to the Estonian state chancellery.

- Siim Raie, the 27-year-old director of Estonia's chamber of commerce, just took out a personal home loan without picking up a pen. But this is not just a demographic revolution.Hansson's 84-year-old grandfather just got his smart card.

- Next up: e-voting and e-police, which will put a driver's entire history of traffic violations on the card's chip.

- When Estonia determined that its traditional customs process was keeping it from winning mobile phone assembly projects, it got an e-customs system that cut average processing time from several hours to about 20 seconds today.

- Indicator of Estonian mindset - An Estonian might ask, "what is the efficiency factor of the new museum of modern art."

- Estonian credo -"If It Works, You Can Break It"

Part II shall follow.
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