Reflecting on MERL Tech 2018 and the Blockchain

by Michael Cooper (emergence.consultant.com), Founder at Emergence; Shailee Adinolfi (shailee.adinolfi@consensys.net), Director of Blockchain Solutions at ConsenSys; and Valentine J Gandhi (v.gandhi@dev-cafe.org), Founder at the Development Café.

Mike and Val at the Blockchain Pre-Workshop at MERL Tech DC.

MERL Tech DC kicked off with a pre-conference workshop on September 5th that focused on what the Blockchain is and how it could influence MEL.

The workshop was broken into four parts: 1) blockchain 101, 2) how the blockchain is influencing and could influence MEL, 3) case studies to demonstrate early lessons learned, and 4) outstanding issues and emerging themes.

This blog focuses and builds on the fourth area. At the end, we provide additional resources that will be helpful to all interested in exploring how the blockchain could disrupt and impact international development at large.  

Workshop Takeaways and Afterthoughts

For our purposes here, we have distilled some of the key takeaways from the workshop. This section includes a series of questions that we will respond to and link to various related reference materials.  

Who are the main blockchain providers and what are they offering?

Any time a new “innovation” is introduced into the international development space, potential users lack knowledge about what the innovation is, the value it can add, and the costs of implementing it. This lack of knowledge opens the door for “snake oil salesmen” who engage in predatory attempts to sell their services to users who don’t have the knowledge to make informed decisions.

We’ve seen this phenomenon play out with blockchain. Take, for example, the numerous Initial Coin Offerings (ICO’s) that defrauded their investors, or the many instances of service providers offering low quality blockchain education trainings and/or project solutions.  

Education is the best defense against being taken advantage of by snake oil salesmen.  If you’re looking for general education about blockchain, we’ve included a collection of helpful tools in the table below. If your group is working to determine whether a blockchain solution is right for the problem at hand, the USAID Blockchain Primer offers easy to use decision trees that can help you. Beyond these, Mercy Corp has just published Block by Block, which outlines the attributes of various distributed ledgers along some very helpful lines that are useful when considering what distributed ledger technology to use.

Words of warning aside, there are agencies that provide genuine blockchain solutions. For a full list of providers please visit www.blockchainomics.tech, an information database run by The Development CAFE on all things blockchain.

Bottom Line: Beware the snake oil salesmen preaching the benefits of blockchain but silent on the feasibility of their solution. Unless the service provider is just as focused on your problem as you are, be wary that they are just trying to pitch a solution (viable or not) and not solve the problem.  Before approaching the companies or service providers, always identify your problem and see if Blockchain is indeed a viable solutions.

How does governance of the blockchain influence its sustainability?

In the past, we’ve seen technology-led social impact solutions make initial gains that diminished over time until there is no sustained impact.  Current evidence shows that many solutions of this sort fail because they are not designed to solve a specific problem in a relevant ecosystem. This insight has given rise to the Digital Development Principles and the Ethical Considerations that should be taken into account for blockchain solutions.  

Bottom Line: Impact is achieved and sustained by the people who use a tool. Thus, blockchain, as a tool, does not sustain impacts on its own. People do so by applying knowledge about the principles and ethics needed for impact. Understanding this, our next step is to generate more customized principles and ethical considerations for blockchain solutions through case studies and other desperately needed research.  

How do the blockchain, big data, and Artificial Intelligence influence each other?

The blockchain is a new type of distributed ledger system that could have massive social implications. Big Data refers to the exponential increase in data we experience through the Internet of Things (IoT) and other data sources (Smart Infrastructure, etc.). Artificial Intelligence (AI) assists in identifying and analyzing this new data at exponentially faster rates than is currently the case.

Blockchain is a distributed ledger, in essence, a database of transactions, just like any other database, it’s a repository, and it is contributing to the growth of Big Data. AI can be used to automate the process of data entry into the blockchain. This is how the three are connected.

The blockchain is considered a leading contender as the ledger of choice for big data because: 1) due to its distributed nature it can handle much larger amounts of data in a more secure fashion than is currently possible with cloud computing, and 2) it is possible to automate the way big data is uploaded to the blockchain. AI tools are easily integrated into blockchain functions to run searches and analyze data, and this opens up the capacity to collect, analyze and report findings on big data in a transparent and secure manner more efficiently than ever before.

Bit by Bit is a very readable and innovative overview of how to conduct social science research in the digital age of big data, artificial intelligence and the blockchain. It gives the reader a quality introduction into some of the dominant themes and issues to consider when attempting to evaluate either a technology lead solution or use technology to conduct social research.

Given its immutability, how can an adaptive management system work with the blockchain?

This is a critical point.  The blockchain is an immutable record, it is almost impossible (meaning it has never been done and there are no simulations where current technology is able to take control of a properly designed blockchain) to hijack, hack, or alter.  Thus the blockchain provides the security needed to mitigate corruption and facilitate audits.

This immutability does not mitigate any type of adaptive management approach, however. Adaptive Management requires small iterative course corrections informed by quality data around what is and is not working.  This data record and the course corrections provide a rich data set that is extremely valuable to replication efforts because they subvert the main barrier to replication — lack of data on what does and does not work. Hence in this case the immutability of the blockchain is a value add to Adaptive Management. This is more of a question of good adaptive management practices rather than whether the blockchain is a viable tool for these purposes.  

It is important to note that you can append information on blocks (not amend), so there will always be a record of previous mistakes (auditability), but the most recent layer of truth is what’s being viewed/queried/verified, etc. Hence, immutability is not a hurdle but a help.

What are the first steps an organization should take when deciding on whether to adopt a blockchain solution?

Each problem that an organization faces is unique, but the following simple steps can help one make a decision:

  • Identify your problem (using tools such as Developmental Evaluation or Principles of Digital Development)
  • Understand the blockchain technology, concepts, functionality, requirements and cost
  • See if your problem can be solved by blockchain rather than a centralized database
  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages
  • Identify the right provider and work with them in developing the blockchain
  • Consider ethical principles and privacy concerns as well as other social inequalities
  • Deploy in pilot phases and evaluate the results using an agile approach
What can be done to protect PII and other sensitive information on a blockchain?

Blockchain uses cryptography to store its data. That PII and other information cannot be viewed by anyone other than those who have access to the ‘keys’. While developing a blockchain, it’s important to ensure that what goes in is protected and that access to is regulated. Another critical step is promoting literacy on the use of blockchain and its features among stakeholders.

References Correlated to Take Aways

This table organizes current reference materials as related to the main questions we discussed in the workshop. (The question is in the left hand column and the reference material with a brief explanation and hyperlink is in the right hand column).  

Question Resources and Considerations
Who are the main blockchain platforms? Who are the providers and what are they offering? Platforms 

Stellar: https://www.stellar.org/

Ethereum: https://www.ethereum.org/

Hyperledger: https://www.hyperledger.org/

R3: Corda: https://www.r3.com/corda-platform/

EOS: https://explorer.eos-classic.io/home

Providers

IBM, ConsenSys, Microsoft, AWS, Cognizant, R3, and others, are offering products and enterprise solutions.

Block by Block is a valuable comparison tool for assessing various platforms. 

How does governance of the blockchain influence its sustainability? See Beeck Center’s Blockchain Ethical Design Framework. Decentralization (how many nodes), equity amongst nodes, rules, transparency are all factors in long-term sustainability.  Likewise the Principles for Digital Development have a lot of evidence behind them for their contributions to sustainability.
How do the blockchain, big data and Artificial Intelligence influence each other? They can be combined in various ways to strengthen a particular service or product. There is no blanket approach, just as there is not blanket solution to any social impact problem.  The key is to know the root cause of the problem at hand and how the function of each tool used separately and in conjunction can address these root causes.
Given its immutability, how can an adaptive management system work with the blockchain? Ask how mistakes are corrected when creating a customized solution, or purchasing a product. Usually, there will be a way to do that, through an easy to use, user interface.
What are the first steps an organization should take when they are deciding on whether to adopt a blockchain solution? Participate in demos, and test some of the solutions for your own purposes or use cases.  Use the USAID Blockchain Primer and reach out to trusted experts to provide advice. Given that the blockchain is primarily open source code, once you have decided that a blockchain is a viable solution for your problem, GitHub is full of open source code that you can modify for your own purposes.

 

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