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How Blockchain Is Helping Technology Get Its Soul Back

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“This is a struggle for the soul of technology. We need to take bold steps to restore the public’s faith.”

– Sheldon Himelfarb, President and CEO, PeaceTech Lab

More than a few architects of our digital era have confessed to some critical design flaws in our modern technological environment. Centralized networks — be they telecom, online, or financial — are not just rent-seeking but surveillance-prone. Ad-driven revenue models precipitate user experiences that are both fractured and addictive, news outlets that aren’t fact-checked, but clickbaited. Our personal data — clicks, likes, cursor movements, seemingly innocuous online behavior that becomes profoundly telling in volume — is machine-learned, sold off, weaponized. As Michael Casey, co-author of The Truth Machine, recently noted, “In the data economy that we now live in, data is a currency. Facebook isn’t a free service. We’re paying them with our data.”

Joe Lubin has said time and again that “The Internet is awesome, but it’s broken.” The idea of the Internet is awesome, certainly — a read-write environment where information can be shared seamlessly and where users can become creators and collaborators. But, as New York Magazine poignantly captured earlier this spring, somehow this “Silicon Valley dream of building a networked utopia turned into a globalized strip-mall casino overrun by pop-up ads and cyberbullies.” And still, millions are excluded from this “global” system altogether.

In her memoir Close to the Machine, Ellen Ullman describes the disconnect she sometimes felt from fleshy reality as a software engineer: “I have passed through a membrane where the real world and its uses no longer matter … The users existed only in my mind, projections, all mine. They were abstractions, initiators of tasks that set off remote procedure calls; triggers to a set of logical and machine events.” Perhaps it’s somewhere in this disconnect, and in the “rapture of discovery and innovation,” as Bill Joy has observed, that our modern technologies have lost their way. This distance from end users. Human users.

In the wake of some historic whistle blows, breaches, and letdowns, it is high time that the tech community wins back the public’s favor and proves it can build something truly global that doesn’t surveil, commodify, or marginalize users, but that aligns, enables, and ennobles them.

Beyond Silicon Valley: Web3 Underground

Blockchain technology has emerged as the flagship in the effort to course-correct — but really overhaul — our current systems. Owned by no one, and powered by whoever wants to join the network, a blockchain’s uniquely distributed architecture makes it an ideal global infrastructure for users to directly trust, transact, and collaborate with one another.

Web3, as this hyper-collaborative and rearchitected Internet is being called, is not being built by the tech community, or out of any of the old conduits (Wall Street, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London), but by pockets of forward-thinking and critically-minded engineers, entrepreneurs, policy makers, regulators, humanitarians, and artists from all points of the compass: Denver, Toronto, Berlin, Johannesburg, Kiev, Manila, Bushwick. A better word for this community is ecosystem — it is diverse, emergent, self-organized, healthily competitive, hungry for feedback, resilient, and highly energetic.

On June 1, hundreds of impact-driven blockchainers came together for the Blockchain for Social Impact Conference under the “Dove’s Wings” at the US Institute of Peace, a vaulting glass and steel structure on the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington, DC. Their mission: use blockchain to wage peace.

Speakers and attendees alike were wary of utopian promises and attuned to the complexities of deploying new technologies in crisis areas, let alone a technology that is owned by no one/everyone. Proofs of concept are one thing. On-the-ground solutions are another.

Any technology is by and large what we make of it, and crypto, like any space, has its back alleys — lambo bros and pump and dumps and authoritarian ICOs. And so Sheldon Himelfarb from PeaceTech Lab called on the ecosystem “to get smart about blockchain,” and work together across sectors: “When policymakers only talk to policymakers and technologists to technologists and data scientists to data scientists, we will never move the needle on our shared goal of creating a more peaceful, prosperous planet.”

The conference made a few things clear: dozens of projects have gotten smart about blockchain, and they’re cutting across sectors and on the ground. While some await the “blockchain killer app,” this diverse coalition of teams and tools is proving that blockchain technology’s most compelling use cases are already underway.

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Early Warning Systems, Expedited Relief, and Accountable Aid

“Even a two or three minute warning can save hundreds of lives.”

– Rohini Srihari, Chief Data Scientist, PeaceTech Lab

With modern data science and machine intelligence, impact groups are now able to analyze data in fragile regions and monitor risk in real-time, from the proliferation of online hate narratives to terrorist attacks to supply shortages. This past April, groundTruth Global’s analytics platform predicted unrest in southern India related to the water supply. Such an early warning system could prepare water tankers and bottling companies to efficiently allocate resources, mitigate security risks, and diffuse the situation.

A longstanding challenge for impact groups has been getting cash on the ground fast to crisis areas. In many cases, the problem is not lack of resources, but lack of purchasing power to access resources. Cash-based response is often a preferred form of aid because it is cost-efficient (the cost of handling and transporting food can range up to 50% of total aid), convertible, faster, easier to deliver to remote locations, and allows beneficiary choice. Cash-aid, however, still suffers from misallocation and delays. During the Kosovo Crisis in the late 1990s, cash distributed to Albanian families who were accommodating Kosovar refugees was in many cases not received “until after the refugees had been repatriated” (HPN).

These blockchain-based solutions are helping impact groups monitor risk, expedite relief, and establish accounting systems across various regions and populations.

  • groundTruth Global. Real-time risk monitoring and predictive analytics platform. groundTruth is moving forward with a blockchain solution to collect local data in order to gain insight into instability at hyper-local levels.
  • Project Bifrost. ConsenSys, MakerDAO, and Dether are teaming up to use stablecoins and peer-to-peer value transfer to get cash on the ground in crisis areas in three days or less with only 1% transaction cost.
  • Collaborative Health Solutions (CHS). In one study, 44% of women killed by their intimate partner visited an emergency department in the two years prior for domestic violence related injuries. CHS is building a single, blockchain-based electronic platform for interpersonal violence forms that will expedite reporting, payments for services, and victim care.
  • Alice. As social funding has suffered a historic shortfall in recent years, impact investing has emerged as a solution for generating both social and financial returns. However, public trust in the charity sector is also at historic lows. Alice is a social funding and impact management platform on the Ethereum blockchain that incentivizes organizations to run impact projects transparently and effectively.
  • UNICEF. UNICEF’s Innovation Ventures team is exploring blockchain technology as a means to foster greater transparency into their internal institutional processes and to streamline fundraising and online transactions.

65 Millions Journeys: Bringing Lost Citizens On-Chain

“We have to see the refugee challenge as a wider humanitarian challenge. How can we absorb the flow of people who are forced to migrate?”

- Josephine Goube, CEO, Techfugees

Increasing pressure on Europe and the United States to accommodate flows of refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced persons has brought the refugee crisis to the Western world’s doorstep and proven that conflict zones and failed states are not otherworld issues to be ignored. As the issue reaches daunting proportions, Josephine Goube, CEO of Techfugees, reminded conference-goers that we must not say “65 million ‘refugees.’ We say 65 million journeys.

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Though blockchain’s distributed and encrypted architecture makes it the ideal system for establishing and managing identities for documentless people, it is the responsibility of impact teams across the space to understand how blockchain identity solutions should piggyback on smartphone penetration in developing regions and how to prevent authoritarian regimes from permissioning, deploying, and ultimately co-opting blockchain technology into a centralized measure of control.

These teams and projects are introducing a critical piece that has been missing from our global networks — a secure, portable, and self-sovereign identity system.

  • Building Blocks. The World Food Programme serves over 3.5 million tonnes of food a year and in 2017 gave out over $1.4 billion cash assistance. Last year, they launched the Building Blocks program at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, which uses a blockchain-based authentication system that enables documentless refugees to draw down their monthly vouchers using retina scans.
  • uPort. uPort is setting the standards for privacy-preserving identity solutions across the decentralized web. In the Swiss city of Zug, uPort helped develop ZugID, which enables citizens to access e-government services in a trusted and self-reliant manner. Last year, the uPort team also launched a pilot program with the Brazil Ministry of Planning that verifies government IDs and signed documents on-chain.
  • Techfugees. Techfugees is coordinating the international tech community’s response to the needs of displaced people around the world. From interactive data platforms to hackathons to Women Refugee Fellowships, Techfugees is creating activities and spaces for refugees and non-refugees to meet, mindshare, and collaborate on practical and lasting solutions.
  • World Identity Network (WIN). Nearly 2 billion people live without recognized ID documents. Children without birth certificates are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. WIN is forging an alliance of partners across the public and private sectors to develop a Universal ID system that helps lost citizens access resources, unlock opportunities, and make sovereign decisions about who controls their data.
  • Evernym. Built on Hyperledger Indy, Evernym’s Sovrin identity solution is aimed at simplifying identity challenges in sectors such as healthcare, banking, IoT, and election management.

Supply Chains: Bait-to-Plate, Mineral Tracking, and Auditing 3.0

“When you have an immutable, verifiable source of data, you have accountable traceability of what employees and contractors actually did.”

- Yorke Rhodes, Co-Founder of Blockchain Strategy, Microsoft

Our global supply chains are inefficient, poorly tracked, and at their worst, grossly exploitative. In the container industry, paperwork can account for half the cost of transport. A nationwide study conducted in the US from 2010 to 2012 by the international ocean advocacy organization Oceana revealed that seafood is mislabeled up to 87% of the time. And in a dramatic demonstrationat last year’s Ethereal Summit in Brooklyn, NY, Brian Iselin from Slave Free Trade stripped down to his underwear to emphasize how rampant slave labor is in the production of everyday goods. Mica, which is used in makeup, electronics, and automobile paint because of its shimmery, reflective properties, is often sourced from illegal mines by child laborers younger than 12 years old.

A blockchain’s public record of transactions presents an opportunity to bring transparency to the movement of goods and commodities across the globe, from source point to end customer. As Tomicah Tillemann, Director of the Blockchain Trust Accelerator at New America, pointed out, this newfound transparency could open up unexpected micro-economies: “If you like your cup of coffee, you can tip the farmer who harvested the beans.” While blockchain-based supply chain tracking can’t necessarily prevent bad actors, it can surface fraud and foster accountability. Tyler Mulvihill, co-founder of Viant, had a vision of how different blockchain projects might interlock: “Bounty someone to go into the jungle and audit.”

These projects are furnishing track and trace systems with cryptographic proof and setting new standards for the global distribution of goods.

  • Viant. Supply chain platform built on Ethereum. Viant recently teamed up with Microsoft to help the World Wildlife Fund verify that fish are harvested from sustainable sources, and also pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline to ensure regulatory compliance and to prevent mislabeled and counterfeit meds.
  • Diamond Time-Lapse. Everledger’s Diamond Time-Lapse Protocol helps manufacturers, retailers, and consumers verify a stone’s provenance and authenticity.
  • PACT World. A member of the European Partnership for Responsible Minerals, PACT World is supporting blockchain-based traceability and data reporting systems to foster responsible mining practices in high-risk areas and to keep children out of mineral supply chains.
  • Civil. In our post-fact era, reputable, reliable news is an increasingly rare good, and content from everyday outlets is a commodity worth tracking, tracing, and auditing. Civil, a decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism, is a new protocol for journalism that is aimed at both preventing censorship and flagging any willful distortion of the news. As founder Matthew Iles insisted, “Journalism isn’t just about journalists. Journalism is the system of information distribution between journalists and citizens so people can make informed decisions about the world.”

Financial Access and Opportunity: Borderless Employment and Portable Benefits

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“Now is the time to bring this technology into the hands of people who are at the base of the pyramid.”

- Lesly Goh, CTO, World Bank

No use case has garnered more attention than the potential for blockchain technology to reimagine our global financial system — a global system that currently includes 1.7 billion unbanked and, according to the most recent estimates, over 750 million people who live on less than $1.90 a day. Low cost cross-border payments, work-in token economies, global bounties, and decentralized credit, lending, and crowdfunding platforms are just a few ways that the financially disenfranchised will be able to engage the global economy, develop financial standing, and unlock liquidity for themselves and their communities.

  • Aikon. Decentralized API marketplace. Aikon’s shared infrastructure for API access control, validation, and payments is creating equal access to digital commerce so that small teams of software engineers can participate alongside established enterprises.
  • Bounties Network. Bounties on any task, paid in any token on Ethereum. The Bounties Network is driving the global freelance economy forward and making social impact verifiable. They recently teamed up with MakerDAO to incentivize ocean cleanups, and also Code to Inspire to reward Afghan women who code.
  • Colendi. Decentralized credit scoring and microcredit platform. Colendi is creating a blockchain network among accredited merchants, lenders, and data providers so that both banked and unbanked users can develop portable credibility scores tied to uniquely encrypted IDs.
  • Project i2i. Kaleido, an enterprise SaaS platform, is working with the UnionBank of the Philippines to develop an Ethereum-based payment network that connects rural community banks and facilitates financial access in remote areas of the country.
  • SALT Lending. Secure Automated Lending Technology. The SALT lending platform uses cryptocurrency as collateral so that users can get same day verified loans and maintain their digital asset positions.
  • Opolis. Trustless employment protocol. Opolis’ mission is to provide the safety of long-term employment in our evolving work culture by developing Decentralized Employer Organizations. Work for multiple companies simultaneously and receive one check and portable benefits.
  • Grameen Foundation. Grameen is a global nonprofit that strengthens local partner networks to increase access to financial services, develop mobile agriculture tools, improve HIV treatment, and promote pro bono services.

Proof of Conservation: Peer-to-Peer Energy, Agro Exchanges, and Low-Cost Connectivity

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“We’re not waiting for governments to solve the issue. We want to pay you to reduce your footprint from the beginning. We want to create an impact economy and solve the issue at the forefront.”

- Linda Kristoffersen, Chooose

In recent years, several multinational corporations have made commendable and long term commitments to environmental responsibility, including JetBlue, which in 2016 announced a ten year renewable jet fuel purchase agreement, and Walmart, which is striving for 100% recyclable packaging and 50% renewable energy sources by 2025. Walmart is also exploring a blockchain solution for tracking food products, which would not only prevent foodborne illness outbreaks but also improve efficiency along supply chains. PR play or not, profit and non-profit organizations large and small are actively reducing carbon footprints while local and global leaders slowly come into alignment — and sometimes backpedal — on climate conservation.

Roughly 120 energy-focused projects have shaped up across the blockchain space to rethink our current energy infrastructure, modes of distribution, and incentive designs for sustainable efforts. Micro-grids and behind-the-meter optimization are on the horizon, but as Evan Caron from Swytch envisions, the key value that a blockchain-based approach can provide for our global energy markets is “a data commons and a way to incentivize data sharing.” Moreover, a blockchain’s consensus mechanism ensures that all data going into the commons is validated by the community.

The race to reach net zero emissions is a dire one, and Nick Beglinger from Cleantech21 made the stakes clear: “We have 30 years to get to net zero.” These projects are thinking hard and fast about peer-to-peer energy, transparent data management, and incentive structures that foster both conscientious consumers and providers.

  • Grid+. Ethereum-enabled access to wholesale energy. Grid+’s Smart Agents — always-on, Internet-enabled devices — make smarter decisions about energy consumption. Grid+ just recently received approval for a retail electric provider certificate from the state of Texas.
  • Swytch. Swytch’s Open Oracle technology rewards people, companies, and organizations that make verifiable sustainability efforts, such as renewable energy production.
  • Chooose. Tokenized carbon cuts. Chooose is incentivizing positive climate efforts by enabling companies and individuals to monetize their Co2 cuts.
  • HARA. Decentralized agriculture data exchange. Smallholder farmers, agricultural retailers, and other data providers are incentivized to share real-time, verifiable insights in order to improve inventory management, identify market opportunities, prevent excess stock, anticipate weather risks, reduce spoilage, and cut transport times.
  • Binkabi. Agricultural commodity trading system. Binkabi’s Barter Block system enables developing countries to trade internationally in their local currencies.
  • Nodle. A scalable infrastructure for wireless connectivity will be the backbone of blockchain adoption across developing regions. Nodle’s low cost, low energy, high bandwidth IoT network is extending coverage beyond the reach of cellular networks.

The Next Generation of Impact: Announcing the 2018 BSIC Incubator Winners

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This past April, the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition launched their second annual Decentralized Impact Incubator, attracting over 600 participants, 100 mentors, and 40 judges from more than 50 countries around the world. Teams came together to generate impact-driven solutions across four focus areas: hardware, democracy, agriculture, and refugees. The decentralized incubator model is an effort to facilitate collaboration between participants, no matter their region or background. In fact, 6 out of 8 winning teams formed during the Incubator.

From an open protocol for more inclusive US census data to a rapid, secure kidney paired donation platform, these burgeoning blockchain projects are inspiring initiatives from young technologists who are committed to building systems of care.

Hardware

  • 1st place: Kidner Project (@KidnerProject). A decentralized protocol to facilitate kidney paired donation while preserving privacy and confidentiality. Team members: Sajida Zouarhi (@Saj_JZ), Maroussia Arnault, Amelia Lintern-Smith, Noah Basri, Clément Massonnaud, Mathieu Vincens.
  • 2nd place: Aphetor. A new consensus mechanism for asserting and verifying the identity and reputation of charging stations, EVs, and drones, and for automating the exchange of energy and payments between distributed charging stations and battery-electric machines. Team members: Alexander S. Blum (@alexandersblum), Meredith Finkelstein, Seth Weiner, Chris Jaroszewski, Peter Lyons.

Democracy

  • 1st place: Popchain (@Popchain_us). A decentralized open census protocol that was created to put the voices of underrepresented and undercounted communities at the center. Team members: Val Denay Mack (@thevaleriemack), Gael Gundin (@GaelGuGu).
  • 2nd place: Akshar. A platform that incentivizes teachers based on student performance and provides transparency of funds to donors. Team members: Rahul Bansal (@BansalRahul14), Siddharth Swarnkar, Sundari Narayan Swami, Bhavyaa Rastogi, Carlos Rojas Noverón, Dr. Hugh Gosnell.

Agriculture

  • 1st place (tie): Greenblocks (@Greenblocks_net). A decentralized, community-driven marketplace that connects urban farmers, landowners, and consumers. Team members: Philipp Beer (@Philipp_Beer), Lewis Daly (@lewdaly), Billy Garrison(@BlockchainBilly).
  • 1st place (tie): Thor (@Thor-Weather). A decentralized weather data system that uses blockchain to store and distribute raw weather data. Team members: Ylli Vllasolli (Yvllasolli), Charlotte Stephens (charlotteweb18), Bayo Akins (BayoAkins), Erica Sundberg (elliica), Stephen Jackson (_stevejaxon).

Refugees

  • 1st place: unCHAINed (@unCHAINed_DIRAS). A digital identity and resource allocation system that empowers refugees and displaced persons with self-sovereignty, while making the aid distribution process faster, more effective, and more efficient. Team members: Trevor Campbell, Sam Blumenthal, Gurmeet Budhraja, Madhu Machavarapu, Urja Pawar, Todd Schultz.
  • 2nd place: Arcadia (@ArcadiaBlkchn). A suite of software tools and services that enable NGOs to provide cash transfer services to refugees. Team members: Elisa Pasquali, Anca Zamfir, Ioana Stanescu.

When Everyone Owns a Piece of Everything

Early warning systems. Faster crisis response. Refugee resettlement. Transparent supply chains. Financial access. Renewable energy. We shouldn’t have to stake ether in these initiatives to have a stake in them. But the underbelly and inequities of global markets, alongside heightening geopolitics and the daunting project of a warming world should be strong indicators that the old systems and traditional incentive structures are unsustainable, and that the “long peace” is either pulling apart, or an out-and-out anachronism.

Blockchain technology presents a more rigorous way to keep our promises, to one another and to our planet. Its transparent, peer-to-peer design promotes accountability and also deeper recognition between diverse users along the chain — between someone harvesting food and someone, oceans away, consuming it; between a previously censored journalist and their reader; between a bug bounty issuer and a far-flung patcher who perhaps has a MetaMask wallet, and still no formal bank account.

Beyond transparency and transaction settlement, blockchain-based tokens are an opportunity to unitize previously monolithic assets that belong to the few (energyreal estatestorage) and record and incentivize more responsible behaviors: removing plastic from the oceans, sharing agricultural data, exposing bad actors, thwarting hate narratives. A cryptoeconomic model is not about commodifying every micro-moment. It’s about helping communities recognize, endorse, and learn from unknown and everyday volunteers, benefactors, heroes. “A decentralized, tokenized world,” Joe Lubin explained, “is a world where we all have a stake in one another’s projects and we’re all rooting for one another.”

It’s hard to say if technology got us into this jam — if the voracious consumption cycles of industrial capitalism and the data hoarding of Web2 platforms have ultimately left us at this lonely global crossroads. But what’s clear from the humanitarian fervor in the blockchain space is that technology is now the best way out, and the only way forward. Who would have guessed that Cold War network designs, an NSA hash algorithm, and the P2P cypherpunk movement would have culminated into this promising concoction we call a blockchain, and that it could be used as a force for good? I’m reminded of a line from the German poet Friedrich Holderlin, whom Heidegger often cited when considering the dangers of a runaway planetary technology: “But where the danger lies, also grows the saving power.”

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