Interview: Researcher on Faroese e-Government and the Estonian experience

Keegan McBride visiting Faroe Islands in November.
Keegan McBride visiting Faroe Islands in November. Source: Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance.

Being a small, northern country once ruled over by Scandinavians, Estonians are in an ideal position to bring their e-government know-how to their distant cousins strung out across the North Atlantic, on the Faroe Islands. This is by no means, however, a one-way street, but more of a crossroads — or rather an X-Road, given Estonia's name for its widely-known interoperability solution — with Estonia benefiting just as much from the symbiotic relationship.

One person who knows more than most about this meeting of the minds hails from neither country, instead coming from the US. ERR News caught up with Keegan McBride of the somewhat lengthily-entitled "Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech)" back in November, when he was on a working visit to Tórshavn, the Faroes' capital city.

His mission was studying the implementation of digital government (technically, legally, organisationally, and societally) on the islands. This included, of course, studying the Faroese implementation of X-Road: Heldin. However, this was not just about the technology, and the trip included visits to the Løgting, or parliament of the Faroe Islands, telecoms, municipalities, software development companies, and government ministries.

Coming from the mountainous state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest region of the US, Keegan feels somewhat at home in the bracing air of Tórshavn. A big fan of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks (but we won't hold that against him), Keegan was able to travel to the Faroes as a result of work he has already been doing as a junior research fellow and PhD student at Taltech's Ragnar Nurkse Department.

Ragnar Nurske Department blazing a trail

"The Ragnar Nurkse Department is in the front rank of research institutes for e-government, coordinating one of the largest research projects in Estonia (TOOP) and, as e-government grows in global popularity, there is a real demand for rigorous academic research at both the local (Estonian) and international level," says Keegan, proving the point by being involved in cooperation with Tórshavn.

The Faroes, traditionally dominated by a fishing industry whose decline in the 1990s saw a serious economic downturn, is also now back on the up as its IT sector continues to grow.

Its small size means that it is one of the few places which can make even Estonia seem quite large; 50,000 people live on the Faroes, spread out over 18 major islands and hundreds of islets, making its population comparable to that of Pärnu, Estonia's fourth-largest town. Tórshavn is home to about 13,000 souls, approximately the same as Kuressaare — appropriately also an island capital, in this case of Saaremaa, Estonia's biggest offshore island.*

For most Faroese, as with Estonians, interfacing with the state is quite straightforward: "Most people don't have to file an income tax return; it has been done automatically since the 1980s," Keegan tells us. "They just check that the information is accurate and they are done. In fact, the Faroese had an e-tax system in place long before Estonia. Additionally, they have an e-health solution called COSMIC that connects doctors and healthcare providers across the island.

"They can visit an online pharmacy using their ID number, and the health system has been digitalised since 2011," he continues.

In fact, with 100% broadband penetration and 98% geographical coverage, the Faroes' telecoms company, Føroya Tele, also operates as an ISP in the UK's most northerly island groups, the relatively local Orkneys and Shetlands.

How Estonia can help the Faroes (and vice versa)

What use, then, do the Faroese authorities have for Keegan, the Ragnar Nurkse Deparment, and Estonia's e-government experience?

"Despite being quite a well-oiled machine, there are a few hurdles in both health and taxation systems before a streamlined, truly digital state is in place," he said. "The three hospitals have some older, legacy systems which have not dovetailed perfectly into the state of the art tech."

Unlike in Estonia, there is no centralised digital patient, business, or population register either.

"The taxation system similarly predates the internet age, having its origins in the 1980s, and citizens have no digital driver's licence, still needing to carry a physical license with them," he added.

Another factor is one which Estonians know all about, the issue of independence. The Faroe Islands are autonomous; the Løgting is devolved. However, unlike neighbouring Iceland, the Faroes are still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, though with an eye on independence. Developing their own e-government framework is just one way to move further down that route.

"A Danish IT solution called NemID was in place, but Danish banks withdrew their IT infrastructure from the islands and back to Denmark, which caused some consternation," says Keegan.

"Denmark is still a place where a lot of Faroese emigrate to, mostly due to economic factors," he goes on, noting that at least part of this phenomenon is thanks to policies pursued in the "mother country," for instance the devaluing by Danish banks of property prices in the 1990s, which effectively left many Faroese bankrupt.

"In any case, the level of knowledge needed to go it alone is sufficient, it is just a matter of bringing things together, which both the public sector and the private sector are committed to, the latter putting up about a third of the funding," Keegan explains. "One of the most surreal moments was talking to some of the developers and project managers who consistently referred to having to make a choice between going their own path, or following the 'outdated Estonian solution.'"

Awesome scenery

But what were Keegan's first impressions of his temporary home, even further north (by about three degrees) than and a long ways west from Estonia?

"I was nothing but impressed," he recalls. "The landscape is beautiful, the people are nice; a bit like in Tallinn, there is free public transport inside Tórshavn city limits. It seems quite affluent, and there isn't that much evidence of alcohol abuse, for instance. In general, you would not guess that the place was as isolated as it is, simply from sticking your head out of the door.

"One of the funniest things that happened was students selling lotto tickets who opened the door of the house I was staying in, strolled into the living room, and started talking to me about the charity they were raising money for — for me, way out of the ordinary, for them, part of the care-free open door policy that seems to permeate throughout the country," he adds.

"Everyone speaks Danish, and English too, in addition to the native Faroese tongue," he notes. "The IT sector, as I said, is developing, as is tourism."

One elephant in the room, or rather whale, is just that — the Faroes receive a certain amount of negative publicity internationally over pilot whaling, a long-standing tradition which can in fact happen at any time of year, whenever a pod is spotted close to shore.

"I can't really comment about that and haven't seen anything of it," Keegan says. "Certainly whale meat and blubber have not been on the menu in any of the cafes and restaurants I've been in, but when it came up in conversation, it did not seem to be a major issue to the inhabitants of the Islands."

Demographic imbalances

"On the other hand, the people are very accessible to outsiders, and I've had no difficulty getting interviews," he says. "Whilst it is a little more 'religious' than Estonia (like Estonia, the majority church is the Lutheran church, the difference being this is a state church, an autonomous offshoot of the Church of Denmark. Also, the biggest barrier to e-government and issuing a personal identification code is because it has been equated to the mark of the devil!), religious observance is less than in the US where I'm from. There is a small expat community, but it is not especially vibrant."

Keegan McBride giving a presentation to personnel from Talgildu Føroyar at the Albert Hall, the Faroe Islands' government building. Source: Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance.

But what about Keegan's working role during his Faroese stint?

"As part of the European-funded OpenGovIntelligence project, I started working with Open Government Data, and for the past few months I have been the chief technical lead for the official Estonian Open Government Data portal. That being said, as part of my PhD at Ragnar Nurkse, I have really wanted to focus on what digitalization means for smaller, predominantly rural, societies, and what it means for how citizens and governments interact, and for society as a whole"

"Part of our vision at Ragnar Nurkse Department is to navigate away from a purely techno-centric view of e-government. Yes, the tech side is vital, and sure, block chain and neural networks sound 'cool', but other factors need to be understood equally, for instance the local culture, languages, economy, existing infrastructure, geography, legal system and more. Take, for example, the Faroes, where new legislation has proven necessary for facilitating digital ID, something which has been a part of Estonian society for quite some time already. You also have the issue of a desire for independence which helps drive digitalisation. Unlike many other countries, the Faroe Islands may actually lose money by digitising some services, but they do it anyway because it is seen as an investment in the future. You simply cannot take technology from place A and expect it to work in place B, you really need to understand the context and the system, or else you're asking for failure".

"My office is at an organisation called TAKS, the tax audit body, and I have been working with them to see how technology can positively affect day-to-day operations and the digitalisation of a small, sub-national island jurisdiction".

Why are you here?

But what about the interface with Estonia? The Faroes' football team have played against Estonia in more recent years, but is that the extent of the mutual knowledge about each other's countries?

"Well I get the question here in the Faroes about not only what I'm doing there, but what I'm doing in Estonia too. Then again, a lot of the people involved in e-government here have visited Estonia, including head of the project Nicolai M. Balle, who is truly a visionary and doing an excellent job steering the Faroe Islands through the digitalisation process, and return trips have been made, by for instance the head of the Estonian business register Ingmar Vali, so it's fairly firmly on the map."

Naturally, since we are having our conversation via Skype, the links were forged much earlier than that, whether people on the Faroes realised that or not.

Graphical visuaiisation of the X-Road interoperability solution. Source: Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions.

"The Faroes adopted Estonia's X-Road which shares data between different public sector bodies, authorities and locales, but gave it their own name, Heldin. Their digitalisation program is known as well as some areas of the private sector (see diagram) but gave it their own name, Talgildu Føroyar, and it is working to build up the architecture for e-government based around four core areas: Digital Identity, Signature and Authority, Citizen Portal, Basic Data and Heldin (x-road). The last of these, the IT architecture, is already in place and is called Heldin; the rest are due to be rolled out in 2019."

"They have also been asking questions about how Estonia deals with tax fraud, particularly with regard to digital solutions," he goes on, though noting that Danske, the Danish-owned bank currently at the centre of a huge money laundering scandal via its Tallinn office, does not have a branch in the Faroes at present.

"Generally, while people are curious why I'm here, they don't really ask me, for example, about Donald Trump, as they don't really in Estonia either."

Where next?

Keegan was due to return to Estonia late in November, so what are issues that also need addressing back at his second home?

"Some awareness of X-Road and related structures would help. People can visit and think, yes, this is how Estonia works, not just expats and interested outsiders, but Estonians too. There are sometimes problems with the Estonian ID card, but more than that, we need to be careful about how we evangelise Estonian digital governance. It is true that it works well, but we run the risk of having blindspots about those areas needing to be addressed. As I said, it's important to grasp that it is not merely a tech consideration, with blockchain technologies, digital ID and so forth, but a more holistic approach is needed than seeing techie things as just a panacea."

Has his trip made him re-evaluate his situation, though, and, strong winds and isolation notwithstanding (we're talking about the Faroes primarily here!) is he not tempted to stay put there a bit longer?

"I feel a bit conflicted to be honest, but it's a question of weighing up the pros, such as higher salaries, and cons, such as the smaller population. At the end of the day, I'm already at the stage where I talk to myself in Estonian and even dream in the language — I'm taking the B1 language exam in February to top things off, so I think that says as much as anything."

The Estonian e-governance site can be found here.

Information on the Faroes' digital infrastucture can be found here.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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