For many people when they hear ‘blockchain’ they think ‘cryptocurrency’ or, even more specifically, ‘Bitcoin’. However, there’s so much more to this technology than just cryptocurrency. In fact, this singular focus on cryptocurrency may be holding back many of the more interesting and innovative uses of blockchain.
Although for the general public blockchain is almost synonymous with cryptocurrency it is not one and the same. Blockchain is the technology. Cryptocurrency is just one of its potential uses.
In simple terms, blockchain is encrypted, distributed ledger technology designed to allow the creation of tamper-proof records. These records are decentralized, distributed and public. No record can be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent records. This makes it excellent for creating an indelible, tamper-proof record.
This has enabled blockchain to disrupt the centuries-old, centralized banking systems but it also opens up the potential for powerfully disruptive applications in other areas.
1. The transfer of tangible or intangible property with blockchain
Tangible items such as cars and houses or intangible ones such as patents, property titles, or company shares, could be traded and transferred using blockchain technology. Currently, processes such as buying a house, are immensely complicated and expensive. They require the employment of many professionals and can quickly become an expensive process.
Blockchain could be used to make the buying and selling of assets simpler, quicker, and cheaper.
Where can we see this change?
Several places in India are already implementing blockchain-based systems in order to fight corruption.
India suffers from a serious problem with fraud, bribery and corruption. A recent survey found that nearly seven in 10 people who accessed public services in India had paid a bribe. India was ranked as the most corrupt nation in Asia in 2017. The government is keen to address this issue and has begun to look to blockchain for a possible solution.
India’s land ownership system is one area that is seriously affected by problems with fraud.
It is estimated that $700 million is being paid in bribes at land registrars across India, J. A. Chowdary, special chief secretary & IT advisor to the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, told CNBC. “The current system is rife with corruption.”
According to a study by think tank Daksh, property-related disputes account for a staggering 66% of all civil cases.
In an effort to counteract this problem the government of Andhra Pradesh has partnered with Swedish start-up ChromaWay to build a blockchain-based solution.
Blockchain helps protect the state’s digital assets. It prevents tampering by outsiders (and government insiders). The state eventually plans to extend blockchain to the entire administration.
2. Secure cloud storage using blockchain
There are several advantages to decentralized, blockchain-enabled storage. One is that it is much harder to hack, therefore improving security for the companies using the service.
The last few years have seen scores of large companies falling victim to huge hacking scandals. With secure, blockchain-based decentralized cloud storage these hacks could become a thing of the past. Advanced cryptography based on blockchain technologies can create virtually unhackable data encryption.
The other is that because platforms function by renting unused hard drive space around the world they do not need to build large data centers. Due to this their costs are often much lower.
Where can we see this change?
Decentralized cloud platforms are popping up all over the place at the moment, including Filecoin, MaidSafe, Siacoin, and Storj. Blockchain storage is usually considerably cheaper than large, cloud storage services.
3. Fighting election fraud with blockchain
Our system of voting has barely moved on for hundreds of years. You walk to a polling station and put a cross on a piece of paper before dropping this ballot into a box to be counted later. This system is both time-consuming for the voter and rife with potential vulnerabilities.
It is also a prohibitively expensive way to conduct elections. The cost of the May 2015 UK Parliamentary general election was £114,732,548. In Australia, the cost for the most recent election was roughly $15 (AUD) per voter. In the US more than $1 billion annually is spent on election administration, approximately $30 per capita.
Where can we see this change?
There are several companies out there who are making it their mission to change the way we vote. Follow My Vote is one of them. Their ambition is, ‘To build a secure online voting platform that will allow for greater election transparency’.
Blockchain is an instrumental part of their plan to make voting more trustworthy. All transactions on a standard Blockchain are verified and signed with cryptography. This ensures that transactions (or votes), once enacted, cannot be tampered with.
As well as blockchain technology Follow My Vote’s system uses elliptic curve cryptography to increase security. By using a decentralized, transparent system like blockchain there is a very low chance of the electoral system being compromised. With this increased trust we might hope to restore people’s faith in democracy and inspire more people to vote.
Low voter turnout in the US has been blamed on a lack of confidence in the trustworthiness of the electoral system. In a 2016 Gallup poll it was found that a mere 66% of US citizens were very or somewhat confident that their vote would be counted accurately.
An online voting system would make voting possible for people living overseas or with mobility issues. It would also make it easier for all citizens to fit voting into their busy schedules. You would not need to travel to a polling station, wait in line or be constrained by the polling station opening hours.
Estonia, called ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’ by Wired, has been testing blockchain technology since 2008, before the term ‘blockchain’ was even coined. Today, nearly every interaction an Estonian citizen has with their government can be conducted online, including voting.
Estonia’s “i-Voting” system is used by more than 30% of its citizens. In 2005 Estonia became the first country in the world to hold national elections using online voting. They followed that up in 2007 with the first online parliamentary election voting.
4. Bringing much-needed transparency to the food supply chain
The food industry has been rocked by several scandals in the last few years. The discovery of horsemeat in processed beef products sold by a number of UK supermarket chains in 2013 unveiled the complexity of modern food supply chains.
As the scandal unfolded it became clear how convoluted our modern food supply system is. It was difficult for authorities to trace the source of the problem and bring the perpetrators to justice. Even leaving aside these types of scandals the ideas of provenance and local eating have become much more fashionable recently.
Consumers have become more concerned with where their food comes from, preferring to choose local, ethically sourced products when possible. Locavore, meaning someone who eats locally sourced food, was chosen by the New Oxford English Dictionary as its 2007 Word of the Year.
Companies are waking up to a desire from consumers to know what they’re eating, where it has come from and whether it was grown, packaged and shipped ethically.
Innova Market Insights named ‘mindfulness’ as its top food trend for 2018. Apparently, ‘food and beverage brand introductions that feature ethical claims on their packages have increased seven-fold since 2010’. More and more consumers care about the ethics of what they’re eating.
Where can we see this change?
Tracking food through a supply chain can be immensely complex and time-consuming. When you consider the short shelf life of most food and the huge quantities of it that are flowing through the system every day it is clear that a simpler, more effective system is needed.
There are several companies working on innovations in this area. One of them is the IBM Food Trust initiative who are collaborating with Walmart China and Tsinghua University. They’ve grown into a global consortium that includes companies such as Dole, Driscoll’s, Kroger, Nestle, Tyson, and Unilever.
Frank Yiannas of Walmart said that the IBM platform has reduced the time it takes to trace a mango from the store back to its source from seven days to 2.2 seconds. By drastically reducing the time it takes to trace food back to its source companies will be able to identify contaminated supply chains and recall affected products before they are consumed.
There are also several companies that are using blockchain to improve food traceability for social good.
Viant has partnered in Fiji with WWF and Traseable Solutions to track tuna caught by Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishing company Sea Quest Fiji. Using Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmitters they are able to monitor fishing activities and ensure that fish are caught in locations where fish stocks are not over-exploited.
Provenance is a London-based blockchain company with a social and environmental focus. Provenance’s aim is to bring traceability, transparency, and accountability to food and clothing companies. Customers can find out where their product came from, check if the people who made it were fairly compensated and if it was made in an environmentally responsible way.
With ethical purchasing decisions showing no signs of falling out of fashion with consumers anytime soon these kinds of services are sure to prove popular.
5. Blockchain for personal identification
The past few years have seen shocking revelations about huge multi-national corporations falling victim to hacking attempts and having the personal information of millions of their users compromised. Often, bad passwords and insecure systems are to blame for these breaches.
We have various (imperfect) ways of verifying our identity, which range from digital usernames and passwords to physical ID cards. Blockchain ID is a digital form of ID that’s intended to replace all these forms of identification. Advocates of the technology imagine a future where everyone has one secure identifier.
Blockchain could be used to revolutionize record-keeping, making it more reliable and easier to access. Imagine if all your important personal documents (birth, marriage, and death certificates for example) were stored in a safe, encrypted format and you could access them from anywhere in the world.
We live in an increasingly connected, globalized world and the difficulties of accessing these important documents, verifying them and sharing them with various government officials needs to become a thing of the past.
Where can we see this change?
The Swiss city of Zug is working with uPort to create a self-sovereign, government-issued identity. The system uses Ethereum: a blockchain-based computing platform and operating system. It allows the citizens of Zug to access a suite of e-government services in a trusted and self-reliant manner.
Of course, Estonia is a leader in this area. Citizens can safely identify themselves and access all of Estonia’s secure e-services using their ID-card, Mobile-ID or Smart-ID. Estonian citizens can also use their ID to travel within the EU, log into their bank account, access health services, and vote. Blockchain underpins all of Estonia’s digital identity services.
Blockchain – so much more than cryptocurrency
As you can see from the list above blockchain is so much more than just cryptocurrency. This is just the tip of the iceberg. People are beginning to implement amazing applications that will utilize the full potential of blockchain. In the future blockchain will be like electricity or the internet – not something that we see and think about separately, but merely part of the invisible engine which powers our everyday lives.