The digital technology is touted as the new way to bank, trade stocks, and let engineers work on their own initiative to tackle global crises — including COVID vaccine infrastructure — although issues of privacy and governance remain.
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
Blockchains, digital transaction ledgers that store data, have emerged as a vital solution in getting COVID-19 vaccinations to those who need them most.
The technology’s usefulness, however, extends far beyond health care. In fact, experts tout blockchains as the next-generation underpinning of how we’ll bank, trade stocks, curb climate change, and improve health care equity beyond COVID — and even as a way for engineers to communicate and raise money to allow them to work independently on globally significant projects.
A blockchain is a specific type of database that stores information in blocks that are chained together in chronological order. Technologies rooted in blockchain are ideally suited to verify, secure, and share data, so they can manage transactions among parties, across borders, and between organizations — without a centralized gatekeeper. For more details, please see the sidebar, “A Closer Look at Blockchain Technology.”
Yet the people, groups, and companies leveraging blockchain technology must agree on — and recognize — such details as new forms of governance, business models, and intellectual property rights.
The Blockchain Pushes Past Obstacles
The COVID-19 pandemic finally moved companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations to tackle these obstacles so they could leverage blockchain technology to save people’s lives. That’s because the pandemic exposed supply chain glitches, inefficiencies that waylaid vaccine supplies from the neediest communities, and difficulties in capturing and sharing data needed to make rapid decisions.
A blockchain offers an answer because it’s decentralized, and the data entered into a blockchain are permanently recorded. And because a blockchain comprises a type of registry network, it can be crafted, much like cloud computing clusters, into private and public versions.
“If blockchain [technology] becomes the norm in digital transactions, the impact is dependent only on the creativity of people using it,” said Daniel R. Robles, P.E., founder and CEO of CoEngineers (Coengineers.io), a Seattle-based firm that contracts with independent engineers to work on public-facing projects that resolve grassroots issues.
“What [a] blockchain does really well is finalize a transaction or memorialize a consensus between people, like a digital contract,” he said. “If both you and I have a copy of that contract, it’s difficult to prevent one of us from tampering with it and changing it. Computers are very good at duplicating and changing things, yet very poor at not copying things. So it could be difficult to tell which copy is the valid contract. A blockchain prevents that.”
Robles touts what he believes are blockchains’ “enormous opportunity and strategic advantage presented to the engineering profession, if and only if we choose to adopt it for the specific ‘use cases’ of engineering.”
“Now that the economic contribution of engineers can be measured directly, sustainable enterprise may seamlessly replace the consumption capitalism that is responsible for global systemic risks. Engineers can solve these problems.”
– Daniel R. Robles, P.E., founder and CEO of Seattle-based CoEngineers, a hub for engineering collaborations using blockchain technology.
Photo Credit: Arthur Robles
He has become an evangelist, spreading the word that blockchains’ inner workings mimic engineering thought patterns, and so empower engineers and their ability to work collaboratively — independent of their engineering disciplines or jurisdictions — to solve complex global problems in ethical ways.
“For engineers and scientists, the ability to record nonreversible processes on a shared database holds enormous potential to establish facts, and to validate the physical nature or conditions in the world,” Robles said.
Robles and his company are working to develop The Innovation Bank, an application that would allow engineers to submit claims about their knowledge, their observations, or their discoveries, and seek their peers’ validations of those claims. An engineer could build a resume showing the transaction record of validations of their claims.
The Innovation Bank would go one step farther by layering in a gamification angle: A digital token would be awarded to each claimant and validator for producing facts. Like a living Wikipedia, the visualization of all anonymized transaction records combined would provide important business intelligence to third parties, who would purchase tokens in order to access validated engineering claims, Robles said.
“Engineers don’t know they can print money,” Robles said. “I say, ‘Yes, you can.’”
Where Bitcoin prints money backed by artificial work, engineers can print money backed by real work, he said. Indeed, engineers could leverage The Innovation Bank to create and finance projects that could address the world’s most pressing needs, Robles said.
Robles noted that Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow, Ph.D., posited in the late 1950s that 80% of all economic growth could be attributed to technological change — due to the impact of a scientist’s or an engineer’s work. Yet our society’s idea of monetary value instead is based on the easier alternative of measuring land, labor, and capital, manifest in the things we consume.
“Now that the economic contribution of engineers can be measured directly, sustainable enterprise may seamlessly replace the consumption capitalism that is responsible for global systemic risks,” he said. “Engineers can solve these problems.”
The Blockchain Proves Its Mettle
Emerge, a bootstrapped startup, is leveraging blockchain technology to allow the 3.2 million Hondurans living in COVID lockdown to leave their homes for approved errands and for those with COVID symptoms to receive fast, efficient health care without exposing others.
Emerge worked with tech company Penta Network and the Emergency Response Unit of the Honduran government to launch its solution: an app called Civitas. The software program associates people’s public government ID numbers with unique blockchain records.
If someone feels ill, they can contact emergency response services by telephone to reach health care specialists at the National University of Honduras to determine whether the symptoms could be COVID-related. People who appear to have COVID symptoms are triaged into either emergency clinics or telehealth services that specialize in treating the virus. The goal is to reduce vulnerable people’s COVID-19 exposure.
“The health center validates the permit that proves that person was assigned to that specific health clinic,” said Emerge CEO Lucía Gallardo. “Each time they go to the clinic, it’s recorded and it’s all tied to the [Civitas] ID. It’s not a full history of the person’s medical file. It’s a contained history that begins at the triage center.”
“It’s to better manage how people who are experiencing symptoms circulate,” Gallardo said.
Doctors can use the app to provide notes about treatments they’ve recommended to patients. The data are accessible only to the patients themselves and their chosen health care providers.
The Civitas software solution works by associating users’ government-issued ID numbers with unique records managed on a distributed ledger technology-based network.
It’s also a case study in dealing intelligently with a pandemic, especially because much useful health care data sit in institutional silos — inaccessible to patients and doctors. One solution may be letting people own their health records and volunteer to share their information with governments, clinicians, drug companies, and others, according to a 2020 report from the Blockchain Research Institute.
The report, “Blockchain Solutions in Pandemics: A Call for Innovation and Transformation in Public Health,” calls on people to “get serious” about “shifting our paradigm for management of our identity and personal health data to better predict or prevent pandemics from local to global levels and develop vaccines faster and collaboratively.”
Back in Honduras, when a quarantine is in place, people who live in the capital of Tegucigalpa are allowed to leave their homes only at designated times or for specific tasks. So they must check their assigned categories to see the time slot in which they may shop for groceries, for example.
The result — keeping people safe and ensuring proper and quick medical care — is personal for Gallardo.
“I like to joke that the company was started when I was 8 years old,” she said. That’s when Gallardo, who grew up in Tegucigalpa, helped her parents and siblings distribute food, water, and clothes to people who had lost everything to Hurricane Mitch, which experts said set back 50 years of economic development. The storm destroyed 35,000 houses, leaving up to 1.5 million homeless, or about 20% of the country’s population.
“I can still remember grabbing a bag of clothing or food and turning around to this mass of people, desperate to have [the donation]. It fueled in me a sense of compassion, empathy, and sympathy for the world. It was such a clear memory in my mind.”
– Lucía Gallardo, CEO, Emerge
Recording the stories of people in a migrant caravan, Lucía Gallardo, right, CEO of Emerge, meets with a group in Tijuana in early 2020. Her Central American-based startup leverages technology, such as blockchain, in ways to promote public good.
Gallardo also understood that she was fortunate. Her family lost electricity in the 1998 hurricane, but their home and belongings were untouched. And she attended one of the top schools in the country — The American School — where her mother oversaw fifth-grade homeroom.
Her next revelation occurred four years later, when, at age 12, her eighth-grade science teacher assigned a school project that would lead to real-world change. Gallardo’s team chose water purification. When they toured a local water-purification plant, they asked the neighbors what it was like to live next to the plant.
They discovered, to their shock, that the neighborhood had no running water. “They had to collect water from rain, from a well and purchase water when they were able to,” Gallardo said. “My first instinct was compassion, sympathy, and empathy [with them].”
“You start wondering, ‘Why?’ I don’t even think about my access to water. What kind of society creates structures where this is even remotely possible?” she said. “People can’t escape these kinds of cycles.”
Her feelings of compassion and sympathy turned to confusion and rage, and ended with determination. “I decided, ‘I need to understand how this happens and what I can do about it.’”
After reading an economics textbook, Gallardo set out to work in projects that placed societal transformation as a higher priority than creating a next-generation technology for wealthy countries. So she studied at McGill University in Montreal, in international development with a focus on economic development and food security.
Her quest, as she put it, was: “How do you take places that seem unsavable, in the middle of war, or so poor you can see nothing, and build an economy around that?” Gallardo found the answers lay in entrepreneurship. She was awarded a fellowship at Venture for Canada, a nonprofit that boosts startup founders with training, mentors, and a network of peers.
That’s how her company, Emerge, was born. “We operate like a design and development studio,” Gallardo said. Private companies, governments, and organizations contract with Emerge to solve their problems in a way that uses technology and promotes the public good.
“For example, how do you govern a social housing project and keep it intact while generating its own self-sufficiency?” she mused. “How do you give access to credit to farmers without a credit history or the ability to show [how] much they’re truly selling? How do you proactively protect a country’s financial security during a national disaster? How can you trace funding in the public sector, especially during a pandemic?”
“How do we create solutions that are innovative, that represent many stakeholders, and that are humane and transparent?”
From Global Applications to Ensuring Privacy
It’s not just the nimble startups that are leveraging blockchain solutions to fight the virus. Organizations including the World Health Organization, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and other tech companies, government agencies, and international health organizations have partnered to build the blockchain-based, open-data hub MiPasa.
The platform, created by the enterprise blockchain firm HACERA, aims to quickly and precisely detect COVID-19 carriers and infection hotspots around the world. MiPasa securely shares information among individuals, hospitals, and authorities to aid in public health analysis.
IBM’s pilot partnership with Moderna is an example of how blockchain technology could be used to manage the vaccine supply chain.
“We’re working together to explore how technologies like blockchain could offer vaccine management solutions that have the opportunity to provide end-to-end traceability to address potential supply chain disruptions.”
– Marie Wallace, solution architect, IBM Digital Health Pass and IBM Watson Health
In her role as solution architect for IBM Digital Health Pass and IBM Watson Health, Marie Wallace is exploring ways that blockchain technology can provide solutions to vaccine management as well as supply chain issues.
Photo Credit: IBM
“These solutions could help enable governments and health care providers to quickly and securely share data regarding individual vaccine batches as they travel through the complex COVID-19 supply chain, from manufacturing facilities to administration sites,” she said.
Specifying how this will happen, Wallace said, “Built on IBM blockchain technology, the Digital Health Pass is designed to enable organizations to verify health credentials for employees, customers, and visitors based on criteria specified by the organization. The blockchain ledger is globally interoperable and a trusted source of data.”
“While today, the IBM Health Pass is being used as a way to demonstrate health status related to COVID-19, we actually began developing this technology before the pandemic as a way to give consumers more control over their personal health information,” she said.
The flip side concerns privacy: How is data privacy put in place and assured for citizens?
“There’s still these practical questions, starting with, ‘What does consent mean?’”
– Thomas Hardjono, Ph.D., Technical Director of the MIT Trust-Data Consortium and chief technology officer of Connection Science and Engineering, a team of faculty, researchers, and entrepeneurs who help develop data privacy strategies.
The Open Algorithms (OPAL) project aims to set a framework to safely manage digital identities. Developed by a group of partners, including the MIT Media Lab, Imperial College London, Orange, the World Economic Forum, and Data-Pop Alliance, OPAL aims to unlock the potential of private sector data for the public good by “sending the code to the data in a safe, participatory, and sustainable manner.”
“How do you enforce privacy?” Dr. Hardjono said. “What data and system architectures lend themselves better to protect privacy, the privacy by design? When you design cloud services, computer and social media platforms, what is the best architecture to make sure data is protected?”
Dr. Hardjono credits his colleague, MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Ph.D., the founding faculty director of the MIT Connection Science Research Initiative, with leading a project that led to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which gives people control over their personal data and levies harsh fines against those who violate its privacy and security standards.
The technical director of the MIT Trust-Data Consortium and chief technology officer of Connection Science and Engineering, a team of faculty, researchers, and entrepreneurs who help develop data privacy strategies, Dr. Hardjono outlines the OPAL Paradigm below.
The OPAL paradigm is based on several key principles, including:
Subject consent. Data repositories must obtain explicit consent from the people whose data they hold for the execution of an algorithm against their data.
“In cases where you are involving a particular subject — let’s say you’re a doctor and you want to know my medical history and blood pressure for the past 10 years,” Dr. Hardjono said. “That’s a query specific algorithm for me. I need to give consent for you to run the algorithm.”
Move the algorithm to the data. Instead of gathering raw data into a central location for processing, the algorithm or query should be sent to repositories and processed there.
“The goal is to communicate and share insights — not raw data,” Dr. Hardjono said.
Open, vetted algorithms. Algorithms must be openly published, agreed to, and vetted by experts to be safe from privacy violations, bias, and unintended consequences.
Transparency and regulatory compliance. Requests and responses must be stored in a blockchain-based immutable log of events so the interactions can be audited.
As such standards become the norm, privacy concerns should diminish, replaced with trust and confidence in the systems.
IBM’s Marie Wallace points to the significance of blockchain technology. “I believe we have started a journey which I hope will completely transform today’s data supply chains to create something that is more aligned with the interests of the individual.”
Writer Charlotte Thomas contributed to this article.