Hear on digital vulnerability, e-democracy, and more at Estonia’s E-governance Conference!

By Rachel Teng

The hybrid event will take place from 30 to 31 May, both online and in Tallinn, Estonia.

Kristina Mänd, Senior Expert on e-Democracy, e-Governance Academy, at last year’s e-Governance Conference. Image: eGA.

Estonia’s E-Governance Academy will be hosting its 9th international e-Governance Conference taking place in Tallinn from 30 to 31 May! More than 80 countries will be gathering in Estonia to discuss the role of digital innovation in social change. 


In all its nine years, the E-Governance Conference has become the go-to meeting place for representatives of transforming countries, Estonian e-government developers, and international donors. 


"Many digital cooperation projects have received a boost from this Conference. For example, the development of a data exchange platform in Djibouti and Benin, the creation of a digital country roadmap for Pacific countries, and cooperation with the governments of Aruba, Dominica, Namibia, and the Cayman Islands," said Hannes Astok.


This year, the focus is on how to implement digital innovations more efficiently, prevent digital vulnerability, and brace for the next wave of AI in the public sector. Stand a chance to hear from digital development strategists, decision makers, and policy implementers from Brazil, Ukraine, Kosovo, Moldova, Indonesia, and more.


Among many esteemed speakers is Kristina Mänd, Senior Expert on e-Democracy at the e-Governance Academy. 


Mänd has worked with Estonia’s public sector and with various civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world, such as Civicus in South Africa, LIFEbeat in New York, Network of Estonian Non-profit Organisations, NGO Mondo and Policy Studies Center Praxis in Estonia. 


She has also been responsible for coordinating hundreds of volunteers, doing outreach, social mobilisation, advocacy and policy making, managing projects, programmes and organisations, and their human and financial resources. GovInsider sits down with her to find out more about digital vulnerability, e-Democracy, and the upcoming e-Governance Conference in Tallinn, Estonia. 


What is digital vulnerability? 


That’s a great question. As you know, I work in e-democracy, and our job is to make sure that digital transformation services democracy and is at the service of democracy. And when we talk about democracy, we also think about the people's right to be engaged, to be heard, and to be considered. 


Digital vulnerability is a phenomenon that can happen when people, due to various reasons, may lack the awareness of digital opportunities or solutions, lack access to digital solutions or e-services, or may simply not have gadgets to be digitally engaged. 


What are the causes of digital vulnerability? 


As we might well know already, socio-economic factors are highly correlated with one’s access to digital gadgets. If one has a physical disability or is elderly, that often makes them digitally vulnerable as well. 


We did a study in Ukraine and Georgia, and we found that it could be a matter of lack of digital skills, or a matter of geographical location where there is simply little to no connectivity. It could also be a matter of languages – in many countries, we have national minorities whose mother tongues are not necessarily the main language of the country. 


Cybersecurity is a huge problem, because with the lack of it immediately comes cyber vulnerability. It’s also linked to one’s skills. You might be able to do things digitally, but you might not be able to recognise misinformation or malinformation, and might then unknowingly share dangerous or incorrect information. This can easily make your friends, family, or any other citizen of the country digitally vulnerable, even though you’re not intentionally doing it. 


Does digital vulnerability also have an economic-geographical dimension? 


Digital vulnerability is not really a target-group-based problem, because it can actually happen to any of us. I could be very digitally skilled, have all my gadgets, but if I am going to spend the weekend in the countryside, I might simply no longer have access to the internet. Or, I could be very digitally skilled, but one day I lose my sight – how might I still access the services that the digital world provides? 


Why should we be concerned about this? When we design services or policies in security or education, and do not consider potential vulnerabilities when we add a digital layer to them, we are potentially cutting many people off from their needs. These needs often intertwine with basic human rights of having access to services that every citizen is entitled to. That is why we are very concerned about digital vulnerability.


What should governments do to reduce digital vulnerability?


I think there are three key things that governments can do. One of the first things is not letting modern policymaking and service design happen in a vacuum. Innovation does not happen in a silo. So if we want to see social change and innovation, we also need to have cooperation, collaboration, and co-design. 


This should happen between the public sector, the businesses, and civil society organisations. Because if the businesses can bring in a lot of money and innovation, and the government has an understanding of what the public sector should look like, or what the political discourse in that country is, then civil society organisations bring in the grassroot awareness and expertise of different groups and different people. Most of the time, they stand for the people or advocate for the people who are vulnerable to begin with.


Second, to conduct a “360 degree search” whenever you design a policy, to ensure that they are not missing anybody, perhaps even in a very obvious group. For example, when you are designing a course in digital media literacy, you might forget about people who do not have laptops to take part in the training, and you must then create a cell phone version of the programme for these people to access. 


Third is design thinking. When you design a service when you design a policy, do not think that you know all the answers. Talk to the people who are actually going to use it. Design a chair the same way you’d design a health service, and design a beautiful plate of food the same way you’d design a foreign policy. 


What other topics does the conference cover? Why have these topics been chosen?


This year, our theme is “digital innovation as catalysts for social change”. We cannot have social change or innovation without a comprehensive or systematic approach to the different parts that you need for digital innovation. The question really is how do we make sure that we offer the people what is really needed, what actually helps them to be prosperous? This is one of the missions of the E-governance Academy – to make countries more prosperous and open. 


The second thing is capacity building. As we’ve discussed, one of the key reasons for digital vulnerability is people's lack of skills or capacity, whether it's knowledge or awareness, or how to use specific digital services. Capable users also know how to demand more, and that in itself triggers innovation.


The third component is on accurate, open, and secure data. We have sessions that deal with data overflow or data dilution. We discuss if we control data or if the data control us, and look at how different countries approach the security, openness, availability, and importance of data. As you can imagine, it is also a question of democracy – the more open the country is, the more open the data is, and the better people can make smart decisions to foster innovation. 


Lastly: cybersecurity. Usually, countries or people start taking digital literacy very seriously if a cybersecurity breach happens. Quite often, cybersecurity is the best way to build people skills, because it is something that every single person needs to be concerned about. 


Why should people attend the conference? 


It would be very useful to see and hear what other countries are doing and what things they are paying attention to. Digital advancement shouldn't be the key thing without accompanying social innovation, or the democratic aspects of digital innovation. 


So it's very, very important to see how technological innovation and social innovation and creativity go hand in hand because they should, otherwise we don't develop as a as a society. We can develop robots, but what we really need to develop is happy people and prosperous societies. 


I believe this conference is eye opening. I've been there for three years. And every single time in almost every session, I learned something new. The eGA has an ability to bring together very cool people: decision makers and specialists in the field. I’m very much looking forward to it. 


Register now for the online expo here, and see the full agenda here


GovInsider the official media partner of the Estonia E-Governance Festival.