How Finland is using AI for predictive public services

By Tian Jiao Lim

Interview with Anna-Maija Karjalainen, Director General of Public Sector ICT, Ministry of Finance.

One of the biggest trends in government is the move towards ‘anticipatory services’ - the idea that government should predict your needs using AI.

The concept is quite simple. Amazon uses your purchasing history to recommend books to you, and Netflix shows you new TV series. Why shouldn’t government recommend services when it knows that you are in need - such as nearing retirement age, or with a young child ready for schooling?

Finland is setting down this path with enthusiasm. “We have a way to go to become human-centric, and we need to go much further,” says Anna-Maija Karjalainen, Director General of Public Sector ICT at the Finnish Ministry of Finance. She spoke with GovInsider about Finland’s vision for AI in government.

Predictive citizen services with AI

Finland is using AI to personalise services to individual citizens, using data provided by citizens.

The ‘AuroraAI’ programme will zero in on three pre-identified “life-events”: taking extra courses to upskill and improve employment prospects; relocating to a new place of study; and supporting children at the end of compulsory education.

AuroraAI will use artificial intelligence to identify which services are most useful to people, and then provide tailored recommendations. For instance, it can help advise on popular classes to take for people who are retraining in the pandemic.

This model will bring services to residents, Karjalainen says, rather than forcing them to go to several agencies to address their issues. It makes government more “human-centric” and efficient, she says.

For example, if a resident is changing their job, the AI system will consolidate systems that deal with skills subsidies and lifelong learning, helping them at a time when they are stressed and in need.

Finland aims to deploy a beta version of the AuroraAI model for the first life event by the end of this year and push out the full network to people and businesses by 2022, she says. In the meantime, a new skills and competence development programme will be set up to familiarise users and service providers with the network.

New eID system in the works

Finland is moving towards a new national digital identity system, which is expected to be complete in 2022. The country already has a robust network of e-ID services — residents can use bank IDs, mobile IDs and the existing national e-ID to access government services. However, the revamped mobile e-ID will be more secure and accessible to users.

“We see our digi-ID project as very innovative because it will enable self-sovereign identities in the future,” Karjalainen comments. This would mean that users themselves have exclusive access to the full details of their identity and can choose to reveal only the relevant aspects of their identity. For example, a citizen can use the e-ID solely to prove that they are over 18 years old, instead of showing their full ID information, she says.

Privacy built into Covid-19 response

Finland's emphasis on data protection and privacy extends to its Covid-19 response. As the country develops its nationwide Bluetooth-based contact tracing app — which was launched at the end of August — it is making every effort to let users decide how much personal information they wish to disclose. The app got over a million users on its first day. For a nation of 5.3 million, "we have found this as a great success", she says.

Finland will use a decentralised model to gather data from app users, such that their personal information is stored locally on their devices. “If an application user is confirmed as being infected, the application [itself] will inform any close contacts of potential exposure,” she explains.

The Finnish government is also committed to collecting only as much data as is strictly necessary, she says. The application will not collect location data, and “close contact data will be deleted after a predetermined time if no infection is detected and finally destroyed when retaining it is no longer justified,” she adds. The application will be terminated once the pandemic is over.

E-service access more crucial than ever

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Finland has seen a 30% surge in public sector e-service usage. This is a trend that Karjalainen believes is here to stay.

The pandemic has forced residents who were previously resistant to e-services to go digital. After experiencing the ease and convenience of digital public sector transactions, residents will continue to use e-platforms in future, she believes. This will likely lead to a “big jump” in e-service usage.

This increased uptake makes it all the more important to ensure that e-services are accessible to all. Indeed, ensuring that e-services are available to all residents has been a priority for the Finnish government long before the pandemic.
Finland has mandated that all public-sector e-services have to be accessible by May 2021. For example, government platforms need to offer users a way to send in electronic messages and documents, and clearly publish their contact information so that users can reach them for feedback or advice.

To supplement their efforts, the government is currently supplying agencies and municipalities with “tools they can use to further digitalise their system,” as well as “advice and support” on how they can best develop their e-services ahead of that deadline.

Leading with performance legitimacy

As the founding Director-General of Public ICT, leading digitalisation efforts for six years, what advice does Karjalainen have to other public sector officials who are just starting out with their digital efforts?

“Attitude is very important,” she says. “We find the ways we can do what is needed. And as you are able to do that, then you gain trust from others that you’re able to digitalise.”

It is this trust and confidence that is able to unlock government funding and attract other qualified professionals onto the team. “You have to show the results as well, not only talk.”

On anticipatory governance and self-sovereign identities, Finland is driving new models of government. The pandemic is not the only story in the world of innovation.