Estonia’s X-Road: data exchange in the world’s most digital society

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

The Baltic state’s data exchange platform, X-Road, has been credited as one of the key pillars for driving whole-of-society digital transformation. GovInsider speaks to leading officials at Estonia’s Information System Authority to dive deeper into the platform’s success and future plans.

In Estonia and beyond, the open-source X-Road infrastructure helps pave the way for secure data exchange between public and private players. Image: Canva

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In Estonia, all roads lead to X-Road – one of the key pillars of the country’s digital society. The country’s secure data exchange platform now connects over 450 public and private sector organisations, and powers more than 3,000 digital services catering for residents and businesses.


Now, over 20 countries across the world, including Cambodia, Brazil, Finland, and Namibia, have adapted X-Road to meet their local contexts, tapping on the software’s open-source version published under the MIT Licence.


GovInsider speaks to leaders at Estonia’s Information System Authority (RIA), to understand how X-Road sustains the country’s digital transformation efforts, how international collaborations are changing the data exchange game, and what’s next for the platform that will soon be celebrating its silver jubilee.

Ask-once-only principle


When Estonia became independent in 1991, the government adopted a distributed data model. This means that each ministry was tasked with developing its own IT strategy and system. They just had to account for interoperability to ensure they could still work together, recounted professors of public administration, Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel, in a book chapter.


And X-Road was the solution: an underlying layer that enables Estonia’s public agencies to share data securely with each other. As every ministry manages access to their own database, this ensures data is not stored in a common pool that could become a single point of failure.

Joonas Heiter, Director-General of RIA. Image: LinkedIn

“X-Road interconnects all these different databases,” says Joonas Heiter, Director-General of RIA. 


“When each nation implements X-Road… any other organisation, either from the public or private sector… can set up their own connection via this data exchange platform and have their information systems, databases, and registries start exchanging data with other organisations over X-Road,” says Taavi Ploompuu, Head of Personal Services Department at RIA.


“From a citizen’s point of view, it’s all the same government, so they really shouldn’t have to enter data they have already entered. Having a good solution for data exchange allows you to eliminate that,” he says. 


In turn, this standardised solution enables public agencies to focus on providing services more quickly and efficiently, rather than having to set up data exchange workflows each time.

Taavi Ploompuu, Head of Personal Services Department, RIA.

Private sector organisations can then choose to tap on X-Road to query data from the public sector over X-Road, he explains. This helps ensure citizens and businesses only need to provide data once to the authorities, rather than having to repeat themselves to multiple agencies. 


Currently, two-thirds of organisations on Estonia’s X-Road, X-Tee, are private.


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Going international


Over the past few years, X-Road has gone global. Not only have versions of X-Road been adopted by other countries, the development of X-Road is now managed by the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), a non-profit organisation created by the governments of Estonia, Iceland, and Finland.


As of 2018, Finland and Estonia have connected their X-Road systems, enabling cross-border data exchange. This enables the countries to work together and make processes better for citizens and public sector officials, particularly when it comes to issues like mobility, taxation, and service provision.


“The Estonian population is only 1.3 million people, and more than 100,000 people are commuters to Finland… when we interconnected the population registry, we understood there was a certain number of citizens who declare that they are both living in Helsinki and Tallinn, and gain benefits from both the local municipalities,” says Heiter.


There needs to be a clear use-case and the political will to do so, Ploompuu adds. When it comes to the technological aspect, open-source solutions like X-Road are easy for countries to adopt and tailor to their context while verifying security.

Countries that have adopted X-Road, according to a map hosted on the X-Road website. Image: X-Road Global

“The cool thing is that if you have multiple countries that implement X-Road, they’re basically implementing the same out-of-box technical solution. Why shouldn’t they be able to communicate with each other?” he says.


RIA also provides expert-level consultation to countries that wish to adopt X-Road, while private companies like e-Estonia and the e-Governance Academy provide more in-depth technical and hands-on assistance to countries that wish to adopt X-Road.

What’s next for X-Road?


A key trend the team is looking at is the rise of common data spaces in Europe, says Heiter. These refer to privacy-preserving infrastructure that enables organisations to share data securely in a fair and transparent manner that adheres to European data protection regulations.


“Currently, the focus for X-Road is to keep it relevant in a time when the nature of data exchange is changing,” says Ploompuu.


This month, NIIS has announced a goal to align X-Road’s trust framework with Europe’s Gaia-X, a European data space which aims to support digital sovereignty and help users retain control over data access and usage. This project will improve interoperability between X-Road and Gaia-X and enable more European countries to adopt X-Road, if they wish.


Organisations that wish to learn more about X-Road can join the X-Road Community to share best practices and insights.