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Happiness bank aims to involve Estonians in making their lives better

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In times of economic woe, Estonians are banking on ideas to lift their spirits above the gloom and doom of recession with an online "happiness bank" and forums on better governance. "The main aim of the project... is to use modern technology to create a 'democracy machine' that will help increase understanding among people, bring the state closer to citizens and force people to become actively involved in improving their lives instead of passively hoping that someone else will do it," Estonian Internet entrepreneur Rainer Nolvak, one of the main organizers of the project, told AFP.

In the virtual "happiness bank", people will be able to earn virtual money on their accounts by doing good deeds for those in need. Organisers hope it will give people the idea that doing good is as valuable as earning money. "We think that especially when the entire world is facing recession we need a lot of thinking also at the grass-roots level to figure what we all can do to fight recession and make life better," Nolvak added.

Organisers hope that as many as 100,000 Estonians in the tiny 1.3-million-strong Baltic EU state will attend 400-1000 public 'brain-storming' forums across Estonia on better governance that will also be streamed live via the net on May 1. Registration for the project is currently underway.

"The topics of the forums will tackle the most important problems at both local and national level. All forum group heads must select the topics from our website (my Estonia) by April 20, 2009," Anneli Ohvril, head of the Communications Team for the "Let's do it - let's think" project, told AFP. "The forum participants will select best practice ideas that they will then start to implement," Ohvril says.

Organisers expect to get at least one thousand ideas for best practices that can be applied in everyday life. Later in December, people will be asked to vote on all the local and national best ideas to select the ones they support the most. Nolvak says the success of a massive Internet-based national garbage collection campaign last year sparked the idea for the 'democracy machine' and 'happiness bank'.

"We started preparations last autumn, encouraged by the massive turnout last spring when we called people to clean up garbage across Estonia," Nolvak said, who was named as Estonia's most innovative person in 2008. "The success of that campaign proved to us that people are ready to commit themselves for their country."

The one day "Let's do it - let's clean Estonia" campaign on May 3, 2008 saw 50,000 volunteers - about 3% of the Estonian population - turn out to collect 10,000 tonnes of illegally dumped garbage. More than 40 waste management companies provided necessary containers and garbage transportation vehicles.

The initiative aimed to recycle up to 80% of the collected waste, making it the first massive recycling project in Estonia. The usual amount of garbage recycled in Estonia is 10%.

The campaign organisers used special software based on Google Earth, positioning software for mobile phones and mobile phones with GPS to map and photograph 11,000 illegal garbage dumps across all 45,227 square kilometers of Estonia. One of the founders of Skype, Ahti Heinla, helped take care of the digital geo-mapping of the waste.

The organisers hope that with the help of IT, the 'democracy machine' campaign will help to get new people into Estonian politics where recent opinion polls show public confidence in politicians is waning. Estonia, which broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the EU and NATO in 2004,  has become a powerhouse of IT innovation.

This story was adapted from an AFP story entitled Estonians plan virtual 'happiness bank' to fight recession, datelined Tallinn March 1, 2009, that has been widely distributed across the Web, and a story entitled Estonia’s innovation of the year 2008 – cleanup campaign “Let’s Do It!”, written by Juhan Tere of The Baltic Course Nov. 20, 2008. You can watch a video about the 2008 cleanup on YouTube.




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