Estonia's Digital Revolution Takes Root in Azerbaijan (PHOTO)

Estonia's Digital Revolution Takes Root in Azerbaijan (PHOTO)

Oil, not tech, is the word most outsiders would associate with Azerbaijan, a petro-rich nation of 9.4 million that sits aside the Caspian Sea. But that may be about to change as the country is undergoing a boom in both electronic government services and e-infrastructure, and is even on the verge of slipping ahead of Western Europe in terms of mobile ID.

The changes are happening at a breakneck pace: Thanks to the big input of the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies, the state now has as many as around 450 e-government services registered, most having come online in the past two years. And since the launch this year of Asan Imza (Easy Signature), the secure system that lets users verify their digital identity via their mobile phone, over 1,300,000 digital signatures have been rendered and more than 1,250,000 transactions carried out using mobile ID in Azerbaijan.

If the story of a relatively unknown former Soviet republic making a splash in the world of tech and e-government sounds familiar, it should. For years, the wunderkind of the international tech community has been Estonia, a pioneer of paperless government, a champion of free Wi-Fi and the birthplace of Skype. Though the two countries don't have much else in common, both Azerbaijan and Estonia were once part of the USSR and both recently found themselves having to rebuild their state institutions from scratch.

It's not too surprising then that when the Azerbaijani president began actively pushing for the digitization of state services - part of a drive to cut down on corruption and make life easier for the average citizen - it was Estonian companies that took up the call.

One of them in particular, Best Solutions, has been in on the game from the start. It has been responsible for implementing a number of e-government projects as well as the abovementioned mobile ID. Together with another Estonian company, Cybernetica, and Azerbaijani partners, it also installed the all-important data exchange layer that lets the various government systems work together. An updated version of Estonia's own X-Road, it is as state-of-the-art as they come.

Most crucially, having compatible infrastructure means the two countries can set up cross-border services in the future.

"EU politicians can discuss for years how they will integrate. Estonia and Azerbaijan are already doing it," says Founder of Best Solutions and chairwoman of Azerbaijan-Estonian Chamber of Commerce Jana Krimpe.

As an example, she pointed to Azerbaijan's Certification Authority (CA), the body that verifies the ownership of public keys and is therefore the linchpin of any secure, online ID system. The CA in Azerbaijan, owned and operated by the Ministry of Taxes, uses the same standards as Estonia's, potentially paving the way for Azerbaijani and Estonian business reps to be able to sign each other's contracts online.

But this isn't a story of cut-and-paste development. Whereas Estonia's online ID infrastructure, built over a decade ago, was based mainly on national ID cards, card readers and PCs, Azerbaijan's is very much designed for the mobile age, with mobile ID and app-based government services at its core.

Other key innovations came in by necessity. For example, Estonia's mobile ID service platform is owned by the country's three telecoms, each of which has its own operating parameters. That meant a lot of negotiation had to happen before the system could get up and running, and each subsequent modification still has to be carried out separately by each of the operators.

For better efficiency, not to mention cyber security, the Azerbaijan model uses a centralized mobile ID platform, created within a Public Private Partnership (PPP) project that is then offered as a service to the telecom providers. Now Estonia decided to implement the same kind of setup.

"That shows that when you integrate, you'll end up with something new, thanks to being forced to see it from the outside. That's going to bring more innovation," said Krimpe.

Cashing in... and Saving Trees

The ongoing shift to e-government, or rather m-government, in Azerbaijan has already borne plenty of rewards for the average Joe (you can legally register a company in under five minutes). But it's probably the government itself that has benefited the most since the first ministry went digital.

It was, in fact, the bean counters at the Ministry of Taxes who led the way, opening the first e-service in 2006.

"It was a huge environmental project," jokes Natik Amirov, Deputy Minister of Taxes. "In the first year, we saved 28 hectares of forest. Now, by our calculations, counting all the documents we used to collect from taxpayers in paper format, we've started to save 77 hectares per year."

More than that though, when the ministry went ahead with its then-controversial online VAT system for businesses, it received an unexpected windfall.

"VAT evasion is the most common form of tax evasion in most countries, and so we thought that VAT revenue would rise 5 or 6 percent, maybe 10 percent," recalled Amirov. It didn't rise 10 percent that month, however. Instead, it doubled.

"That was a pretty happy time for us here," Amirov said.

With that positive experience under its belt, the Ministry of Taxes had the confidence to go ahead with other e-reforms, and was Best Solutions' main partner in developing the country's mobile ID system.

Since last year August, the ministry has been requiring that companies use only Asan Imza to register their VAT declarations, and there has been surprisingly little negative feedback from the change, as business owners want the satisfaction of knowing their transactions are secure. Started from July 2014 the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the population in cooperation with the Ministry of Taxes announced new over-state e-service using use Asan İmza - mobile digital signature in process of appointment of authorized persons and labor contracts registration.

Amirov also has high hopes for what else the mobile ID system could do for the country's private sector, especially if, via the connection with Estonia, its digital signatures become legal in the EU.

"Our economy has been growing dynamically, strongly and rapidly, especially in the last 10 years, and we have a lot of connections with EU countries. As the economy grows, so do the relationships between companies, and any agreements that need to be concluded need to be legally signed," he said.

Making It Easy With ASAN

Of course, there will always be some state services that can't be rendered by mobile, so the same institution that's responsible for the country's m-government services, the State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovation Under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, is filling the gap in another high-tech way.

It's called the Azerbaijani Service and Assessment Network, but most people know it only by its acronym, ASAN, which coincidentally means "easy" in Azeri. The name couldn't be more fitting.

In January 2013, the network inaugurated the ASAN Service Centers, elaborate, one-stop shops where citizens can drop in to receive any of 49 different government services provided by ten ministries.

These centers - there are 10 all around the country to the end of this year - look like a cross between a bank and a comfy hotel foyer.

Visitors are greeted by smiling volunteers who help them register in the right electronic queue (the average wait is seven to 15 minutes, but pre-booking can be done online or via the call center). While waiting, they can do their banking, have a medical check-up, surf the web in an Internet cafe or entertain their kids in the play areas. Private companies operating here offer as many around 30 services, everything from translation to legal consultation. There's even a mothercare room and a free lending library.

Nice as the centers are, the real difference they offer citizens is efficiency and convenience. Here, a driver's license can be renewed in just 10 minutes. It takes only a day to get a passport. The centers are open evenings and weekends, so nobody has to skip work, and for areas of the country where no center is nearby, two (at the end of this year around 10) purpose-built ASAN buses cruise the roads, providing services to further flung towns and villages. There's also a car service that will make document house calls for disabled people.

The centers have been a clear hit, having served as many as 2,240,000 people so far. And in what is perhaps an even more important indicator these days, they've racked up a whopping more than 200,000 fans on their Facebook page.

Inam Karimov, chair of the State Agency, explained how this new way of providing civil service in Azerbaijan is changing the image of the state and the relationship between citizen and bureaucrat.

"Before, there was the impression that the state official was in a privileged position. Here we work on the principle that the customer is always right," he said. "The ASAN Bus, together with the service centers, creates a new brand of Azerbaijani public service delivery, a new Azerbaijani brand. This is something totally new in the world," he said.

Customers? Branding? It may sound rather commercial, but that's nothing compared with how ASAN looks at its relationship with the ministries that work in its centers:

"We call it a 'service mall' concept. It's like a shopping mall, where you have different compartments, but here ministries come and we give them a place from where they offer their services," Karimov said.

ASAN doesn't actually provide the services, but makes sure that the ministry functionaries that work here adhere to its strict guidelines for transparency, comfort, ethical behavior and speed. That's an important distinction, Karimov said, because unlike similar one-stop-shop setups in other countries, the ministries here aren't assessing their own performance.

Scrolling Forward

Sticking to the commercial theme, there is an obvious potential spillover of benefits from Azerbaijan's new, public infrastructure into the private world - a phenomenon already seen in Estonia where everything from banking to parking can be done via smartphone thanks to the data exchange layer and mobile ID system.

The newfound availability of a secure, online ID is exciting to the likes of Farid Ismayilzada, Founder and CEO of GoldenPay. His company runs Azerbaijan's largest e-commerce portal, Hesab.az, and he thinks mobile ID is a game changer.

"It's gonna blow people's minds," he said.

People use Hesab.az to pay electricity and gas bills, and buy insurance policies, and the site plans to offer show tickets in the near future. But the introduction of mobile ID means that it could also integrate services that require a higher level of security than the current username, password, and credit card system, services like online banking or even stock trading.

He cautions, however, that development has to be done with care.

"For me, these kinds of projects are chicken-and-egg projects. You can give mobile ID to everyone in the country, but if you don't have services that use mobile-ID, it's useless. And if you have services that use mobile ID but you don't have enough people who have mobile ID, it's also useless.

So these two directions have to be developed in parallel," he said.

This is why in August a new over-national payment portal Asan Pay (Easy Pay) is coming. Using this portal people can pay using all possible e-channels (banking accounts, credit cards, mobile wallets, etc.) to pay not only commercial payments, but all kind of state fees using your mobile phones. Thanks to this portal all portal users will receive their traffic penalty information or other state notifications directly to their mobile phones and could pay them immediately using the same phone. In cooperation with Estonian company NOW Innovations and Azerbaijani companies Cybernet and Best Solutions all users can pay their parking fees using their mobile phones and this portal.

In the even longer view, there is also the question of how today's emerging mobile generation looks at these innovations and how their expectations are being raised.

Two Baku State University students, Dilawar Khan and Farahim Huseynzadeh, spoke about the rapid changes that are taking place.

"Daily living is easier and we are a lot more comfortable now than before. And in time it will get even easier, "inshallah"," said Kahn.

"I think that in a few years we'll be able to use our mobile phone for doing everything related to social life," Huseynzadeh added.

Both students spoke about wanting their personal ID card, bus card, metro card and ATM card to one day be replaced by a single card, or better still, a mobile phone. They also listed more state services they would like to see available online, from student grant applications to booking times with doctors.

Clearly, the bar for Azerbaijan has been raised, and both the country's public and private sector will have to work hard to keep up with the ever-growing digital demands of the younger generation. But with a lot of persistence, and perhaps a little help from their friends from the north, "inshallah", they'll stay ahead of the curve.

Subscribe to Trend in Google News! Subscribe
President Sadyr Zhaparov signs decree on resignation of Cabinet
President Sadyr Zhaparov signs decree on resignation of Cabinet
Indian external affairs minister to visit Kyrgyzstan
Indian external affairs minister to visit Kyrgyzstan
Kazakhstan attaches great importance to dev't of co-op between Turkic countries - ministry
Kazakhstan attaches great importance to dev't of co-op between Turkic countries - ministry
Loading Bars
Latest
At least 6 dead, 1 missing after ship sinks in Brazil
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry shares publication in connection with anniversary of Armenia's rocket attacks on Ganja
Information about firing of Azerbaijani army in direction of Arazdeyen does not reflect truth - Ministry of Defense
Sudan protest calls for military coup as political crisis deepens
Chronicles of Victory: President Ilham Aliyev addresses the nation on October 17, 2020 (PHOTO/VIDEO)
Chronicles of Victory: October 17, 2020
District Election Commissions to sum up protocols of municipal polls in Georgia
A working meeting of the delegations of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan takes place
Russian authorities say 18 dead in suspected alcohol poisoning in Yekaterinburg
UN chief welcomes unilateral cease-fire in CAR
Iran’s Bahar Azadi gold coin price continues to rise
Work on increasing wages, pensions and benefits begins - Ministry of Finance of Azerbaijan
Official talks reasons for increase in gas prices in Azerbaijan
Post-conflict reconstruction projects launched by President Ilham Aliyev is unprecedented - Aide to President (VIDEO)
Azerbaijani IDEA signs agreement with All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation (PHOTO)
Saudi Arabia's PIF launches offshore platform tourism project
NATO Special Representative for Caucasus to visit Azerbaijan
Iran's Energy Exchange announces products to be on sale on October 17
Iran reaches grow in exports to Kyrgyzstan
World gas prices grow by 20-30 times compared to last year - SOCAR
Latvia to gift Georgia 83,070 doses of Pfizer jab
Earthquake hits southern Iran
Azerbaijan shares data on number of vaccinated citizens
Azerbaijan confirms 1,681 more COVID-19 cases, 675 recoveries
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signs decree on raising social payments
Iran reveals COVID-19 data for October 16
Uzbekistan to privatize public park in Tashkent
Muslims all together sympathetic with Azerbaijan - Palestinian ambassador
Iran's exports to Kazakhstan up
SOCAR Georgia Gas opens tender on pickup trucks through operating lease
Turkish president and German chancellor holding talks in Istanbul
Novak does not rule out recurrence of energy crisis in Europe, urges its prevention
Azerbaijani official talks victims of Armenian attacks on Tartar during Second Karabakh War
Centuries needed to revive nature of Azerbaijan's Karabakh - minister
Azerbaijan raises electricity and gas prices
Restoration work in Azerbaijan’s liberated territories show positive trend – Kyrgyz ambassador
Over past 25-30 years, no country independently conducted such large-scale reconstruction in post-conflict period - aide to Azerbaijani president
Armenia must take serious and positive steps to open communications - Azerbaijani president's assistant (Exclusive)
Azerbaijan looks to sign document on demining liberated territories with France
Azerbaijan's Air Defense Units carrying out combat firing exercises (VIDEO)
Azerbaijan's Karabakh to be famous for its "smart cities" and agricultural products - Turkish ambassador
Iran boosts exports to Russia
Russia registers over 1,000 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours first since pandemic starts
Kazakh energy minister names reasons for shutdown of Pavlodar refinery
Iran sees increase in trade turnover with EAEU member states
Representatives of diplomatic corps view restoration work in liberated territories of Azerbaijan (PHOTO)
First plane with UN humanitarian aid for Afghanistan arrives in Uzbekistan
Iran records increase in load/unload operations in Amirabad port
Georgia and US to discuss co-op in Black Sea
Fuzuli Airport Granted International Status and Assigned IATA Code
Uzbekistan to fund startups in various sectors
U.S. lawmaker blames Boeing leaders for culture that led to crashes
Turkmenistan to purchase agricultural machinery from foreign manufacturers
Iran Energy Exchange shares data on sales of Iran’s Jam Petrochemical Company
Azerbaijan names gymnasts to perform at World Championships in Japan
During former occupation of Sugovushan, Armenia deprived vast lands of water - aide to Azerbaijani president (PHOTO)
Volume of loaded and unloaded cargo in Iran’s Noshahr Port down
Georgia shares data on COVID-19 cases for October 16
Kazakhstan boosts trade with Turkmenistan over 8M2021
Exports of steel manufacturers in Iran increase
Georgia, EU, and Turkey enter into "diagonal cumulation" agreement
Azerbaijani sees increase in oil prices
Iran raises ceiling on housing loans
Uzbekistan’s FEZ creates good basis for deepening co-op with Azerbaijan
Turkmenistan’s private enterprise eyes building dry cargo vessel
Trade turnover between Russia, US may hit record this year, says Deputy PM Overchuk
Iran to launch several shipping lines to Russia, Kazakhstan
Iran looks to improve transportation of goods from Khuzestan Province
Russia’s Korona Pay eyes expanding money transfers via Azerbaijan's mobile banking apps
Gas prices in Europe to remain high over next 6 months
Iranian currency rates for October 16
Turkmenistan's electric potential rises after commissioning new capacious power plants
Iran to increase fuel production
UK MP killing was terrorist incident, Met Police say
Representatives of diplomatic corps in Azerbaijan begin visit to Sugovushan
Czech Republic eyes to support improvement of Georgian air transport infrastructure
1,900 more COVID-19 cases reported in Kazakhstan
Biden says those who refuse to testify in Jan 6 probe should be prosecuted
ISIS claims responsibility for mosque attack in Afghan city of Kandahar
Fully vaccinated foreign visitors can enter U.S. starting on Nov. 8
China's Shenzhou-13 crewed spaceship docks with space station module
UK records more than 40,000 COVID cases for third day in a row
Biden says Clinton will be released ‘shortly’ from California hospital
Amazon-owned Twitch says source code exposed in last week's data breach
Israel's annual inflation up 2.5 pct, highest in nearly decade
Africa's COVID-19 cases surpass 8.41 mln: Africa CDC
US shares specific data on cybercrime with Russia, awaits its actions, White House says
Saudi Arabia appoints Al-Rabiah as new Hajj minister
Chronicles of Victory: President Ilham Aliyev interviewed by Turkish A Haber TV channel on October 16, 2020 (PHOTO/VIDEO)
Chronicles of Victory: October 16, 2020
Czech PM Babis pledges smooth power handover to opposition
UK MP dies after being stabbed at constituency meeting
China’s Shenzhou-13 manned spacecraft successfully reach orbit
Four migrants dead, 21 missing off Spanish coast
FIA approves schedule for Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2022
COVID-19 kills 197 more Iranians over past 24 hours
Georgian FM meets Slovenian counterpart
Armenia trying to prepare ground for new provocations against Azerbaijan by spreading fake information - MoD
Azerbaijani FM discusses mine threat in liberated territories with French CNEMA delegates (PHOTO)
Azerbaijan lifts flight restrictions for number of countries
All news