Estonia and Finland – Digital forerunners in cross-border cooperation

Ville Sirviö,
Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS),

The digital success stories and cross-border cooperation of Estonia and Finland trace back to the end of the 1990s. In Estonia, the X-Road data exchange layer solution project was initiated around 1998 and the X-Road software environment of Estonia, X-tee, was brought into use in 2001. The first digital ID cards were issued in Finland in December 1999 to Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen and in Estonia in February 2002 to President Arnold Rüütel and his spouse.

In August 2002, the Prime Ministers of Estonia and Finland, Paavo Lipponen and Siim Kallas, assigned a task to Jaak Jõeruut, a former Ambassador of Estonia to Finland, and Esko Ollila, a former banker, politician and long-time friend of Estonia, to evaluate the status of relations between the states just before Estonia would join the European Union in 2004. The evaluation resulted in a report entitled Finland and Estonia in the EU. The report mentions cross-border cooperation, information society and energy cooperation as common priorities for Estonia and Finland under the Northern Dimension policies of the EU.

In 2005, the Finnish Population Register Centre (VRK) and the Estonian Ministry of the Interior signed an agreement regarding the exchange of population register data between the countries. Since December 2005, VRK has provided data on Estonian citizens in the Finnish population register to the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, which in turn has provided data on Finnish citizens residing in Estonia since 2008.

In 2008, the prime ministers of Estonia and Finland assigned Jaakko Blomberg, a Finnish diplomat, and Gunnar Okk, Vice President of the Nordic Investment Bank, the task of investigating how Estonia and Finland could address the challenges of globalisation, while considering the goals of the Treaty of Lisbon. The Possibilities of cooperation between Finland and Estonia report was published in July 2008 with 55 recommendations emphasising education, science, technology and innovation. The other areas in the report included energy and information society, among others.

The report by Blomberg and Okk in 2008 included a vision of the countries’ relations in 2030. According to the vision: “[In 2030] two thirds of Finns and Estonians use digital signature and digital authentication, and over 80 % of them use digital signature and digital authentication when doing business with public authorities and enterprises. All base registers of the public authorities of Finland and Estonia are implemented based on common principles that enable cross-border use.”

How did the story continue from 2008 towards the vision of 2030? In 2013, the Prime Ministers of Estonia and Finland, Andrus Ansip and Jyrki Katainen, signed the Memorandum of Understanding initiating formal cooperation between the two states in respect of “developing and maintaining a software environment enabling secure connectivity, searches and data transfers between various governmental and private databases” – X-Road. This is considered to be the world’s first digitally signed international agreement.

In 2013-2014, the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra played a key role in work leading to the implementation of X-Road in Finland, together with the Ministry of Finance of Finland and two experts from Estonia. Sitra funded two X-Road pilot projects in the cities of Espoo and Lahti. These pilot projects evaluated the feasibility of X-Road in producing social and health care services. In addition to nine municipalities involved in the evaluation of X-Road’s feasibility in municipal use, the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health also participated in the studies.

Even though X-Road was piloted in the social and health care sector in Finland, national information security legislation and policies limited the use of X-Road, especially in that sector. Estonia instead has built its information society upon X-Road and has very few limitations in its use. In 2016, Finland began renewing its information security legislation and policies, which will result in a new information management law entering into force in January 2020. This will probably develop new X-Road implementation cases in the social and health care sector in Finland.

The X-Road implementation project in Finland was kicked off in 2014 as part of the National Architecture for Digital Services (KaPa) programme. Data Exchange Layer, the X-Road environment of Finland, was brought into use in November 2015.

In 2015, the Information System Authority of Estonia (RIA) and the Population Register Centre of Finland (VRK) concluded a cooperation agreement with the intention of formalising cooperation relating to X-Road. RIA and VRK were responsible for the coordination of X-Road core development, and a set of practices and guidelines were agreed to manage the cooperation.

Another important outcome of the collaboration between RIA and VRK was publishing the source code of X-Road core as open source under the MIT free software license. The source code was published in two parts in 2015-2016 and it was made publicly available to anyone. Since then, dozens of countries around the world have implemented X-Road as their national data exchange layer solution. The cooperation between Estonia and Finland has had a global impact.

Estonia and Finland decided to deepen the cooperation by forming a joint organisation to administer the development of X-Road. The formation and cooperation agreement of the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS) was signed by ministers Urve Palo and Kai Mykkänen in Helsinki in March 2017, during a state visit of the President of the Republic of Estonia, H.E. Ms Kersti Kaljulaid and her spouse. The Memorandum of Association of NIIS was signed in June 2017 and the institute launched its operations in August 2017.

In June 2018, NIIS took over the core development of X-Road from RIA and VRK. The first step of the handover had been completed earlier in 2018 when NIIS took the responsibility of running the Working Group that comprises the platform for day-to-day coordination of the joint X-Road development. In June 2018 NIIS also took over the management of the source code of X-Road core.

There was extensive international media coverage of the Estonian–Finnish cross-border cooperation before, during and after the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union (from July 2017 until the end of December 2017). Estonia, in cooperation with the President of the European Council and the European Commission, organised the Tallinn Digital Summit in September 2017 to bring together EU heads of state or government.

The governments of Estonia and Finland, led by Prime Ministers Jüri Ratas and Juha Sipilä, convened together for the first time in history in May 2018 in Tallinn, Estonia, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of both countries. They reached agreement at the anniversary meeting on many concrete measures by which digital connections between Estonia and Finland will be enhanced:

The governments decided to explore ways to bring the next digital service infrastructure components under joint development into NIIS, and to support the institute in efforts to find new member countries. The governments also decided to take all the necessary actions and ensure that the on-going data exchange projects will be completed in due time in 2018 and 2019, and the use-cases and roadmaps in the next data exchange areas will be identified by the end of 2018.

Finland’s and Estonia’s data exchange layers were connected to one another in February 2018, making it possible to easily transfer data over the Gulf of Finland between organisations that have joined the countries’ national data exchange layers. Following the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the most popular cross-border use case appearing in international media was the e-prescription, which has often been reported to be based on X-Road, though this is not the case.

In 2019, the national business registers and tax boards in Estonia and Finland are moving towards cooperation that would allow the agencies to exchange data in a more accurate and efficient way by using X-Road trust federation between the countries. In European energy cooperation, digital solutions are being developed to build smart grids and to enable the effective use of renewable energy. New cross-border services are being developed in both the public and private sectors.

Since the end of the 1990s Estonia has built a digital society from scratch, which has led to recognition as a digital pathfinder and resulted in modern digital services for its citizens. Finland with a long record in information technology and digital services leads the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) ranking in 2019. There are good reasons to believe the cross-border digital success story of Estonia and Finland will continue in cooperation with other Nordic and EU countries.


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