Estonian citizens to access public services through virtual assistants

By on 03/03/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
If #KrattAI comes to fruition, citizens could access public services such as passport renewal via their virtual assistants. (Photo by Andres Urena/Pexels).

The Estonian government is working on a project that will enable citizens to interact with government departments and access services via virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri.

The aim is to allow people to undertake tasks such as applying for a new passport or registering a birth simply by making a voice request through a digital personal assistant. The system may ask for a fingerprint to verify identity or a photograph to add to a document, but will otherwise be automated, removing the need for people to fill out forms online.

Ultimately, people may be able to use the system for more complicated tasks such as filing taxes. It would also notify people if one of their documents is due to expire.

The project, known as #KrattAI – which takes its name from a mythical creature – is currently at the conceptual stage. The government’s plan is to create an “interoperable network of public sector AI applications” that enable citizens to more easily access existing digital services. A voice request will trigger an automated process in which AI applications in different departments interact to complete the required task.

“Fundamentally, we don’t offer an interface. People will use the interfaces that are with them anyway, whether it is Echo in the home or a mobile phone,” the Estonian government’s CIO Siim Sikkut told Computer Weekly. “The hard job for a CIO is to attract people to our channels, but we want to turn it around and say: ‘Hey, the channel is with you already’.”

The government said the complexity and rigidity of the public sector would be moved to the background, away from the user. This is in-line with Estonia’s ambition to achieve “invisible” government, as the country’s lead digital adviser Marten Kaevats told Global Government Forum in an interview last year.

Hurdles to overcome

Although the technology already exists, making it work across all operating systems and devices will be a challenge. Privacy concerns are also likely to be raised, though Sikkut insists that people would remain in full control of their data and that the system would be secure.  

“#KrattAI will not be one massive chatbot in the technological sense, handling all interactions and activities in its belly through one big application,” he said. “Estonian digital government has been built on principles of distributed architecture, set up with the intent to make it more flexible for development and more resilient against cyber threats. This should be kept the same in the age of AI.”

The project marks the next step in the country’s digital and AI strategy. Estonia is known for being a digital-first country, with its e-Estonia approach embracing technology in areas such as banking, education and voting. The European country already has 27 AI solutions deployed in the public sector and aims to have at least 50 AI use cases by the end of 2020, according to Verdict. It plans to invest a minimum of €10m (US$11.1m) in AI by 2022.

The government aims to carry out a pilot of #KrattAI in the coming months, and to create a roadmap by the end of the year. It also intends to collaborate with the Finnish government – whose AuroraAI system is similar to the #KrattAI concept – to develop cross-border interoperability of AI applications.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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