Tag Archives: learning agenda

Blockchain: Can we talk about impact yet?

by Shailee Adinolfi, John Burg and Tara Vassefi

In September 2018, a three-member team of international development professionals presented a session called “Blockchain Learning Agenda: Practical MERL Workshop” at MERL Tech DC. Following the session, the team published a blog post about the session stating that the authors had “… found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims [of radical improvements]. [They] also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development.”

The blog post inspired a barrage of unanticipated discussion online. Unfortunately, in some cases readers (and re-posters) misinterpreted the point as disparaging of blockchain. Rather, the post authors were simply asserting ways to cope with uncertain situations related to piloting blockchain projects. Perhaps the most important outcome of the session and post, however, is that they motivated a coordinated response from several organizations who wanted to delve deeper into the blockchain learning agenda.

To do that, on March 5, 2019, Chemonics, Truepic, and Consensys hosted a roundtable titled “How to Successfully Apply Blockchain in International Development.” All three organizations are applying blockchain in different and complementary ways relevant to international development — including project monitoring, evaluation, learning (MEL) innovations as well as back-end business systems. The roundtable enabled an open dialogue about how blockchain is being tested and leveraged to achieve better international development outcomes. The aim was to explore and engage with real case studies of blockchain in development and share lessons learned within a community of development practitioners in order to reduce the level of opacity surrounding this innovative and rapidly evolving technology.

Three case studies were highlighted:

1. “One-click Biodata Solution” by Chemonics 

  • Chemonics’ Blockchain for Development Solutions Lab designed and implemented a RegTech solution for the USAID foreign assistance and contracting space that sought to leverage the blockchain-based identity platform created by BanQu to dramatically expedite and streamline the collection and verification of USAID biographical data sheets (biodatas), improve personal data protection, and reduce incidents of error and fraud in the hiring process for professionals and consultants hired under USAID contracts.
  • Chemonics processes several thousand biodatas per year and accordingly devotes significant labor effort and cost to support the current paper-based workflow.
  • Chemonics’ technology partner, BanQu, used a private, permissioned blockchain on the Ethereum network to pilot a biodata solution.
  • Chemonics successfully piloted the solution with BanQu, resulting in 8 blockchain-based biodatas being fully processed in compliance with donor requirements.
  • Improved data protection was a priority for the pilot. One goal of the solution was to make it possible for individuals to maintain control over their back-up documentation, like passports, diplomas, and salary information, which could be shared temporarily with Chemonics through the use of an encrypted key, rather than having documentation emailed and saved to less secure corporate digital file systems.
  • Following the pilot, Chemonics determined through qualitative feedback that users across the biodata ecosystem found the blockchain solution to be easy to use and succeeded at reducing level of effort on the biodata completion process. 
  • Chemonics also compiled lessons-learned, including refinements to the technical requirements, options to scale the solution, and additional user feedback and concerns about the technology to inform decision-making around further biodata pilots. 

2. Project i2i presented by Consensys

  • Problem Statement: 35% of the Filipino population is unbanked, and 56% lives in rural areas. The Philippines economy relies heavily on domestic remittances. Unionbank sought to partner with hundreds of rural banks that didn’t have access to electronic banking services that the larger commercial banks do.
  • In 2017, to continue the Central Bank of the Philippines’ national strategy for financial inclusion, the central banks of Singapore and the Philippines announced that they would collaborate on financial technology by employing the regulatory sandbox approach. This will provide industry stakeholders with the room and time to experiment before regulators enact potentially restrictive policies that could stifle innovation and growth. As part of the agreement, the central banks will share resources, best practices, research, and collaborate to “elevate financial innovation” in both economies.
  • Solution design assumptions for Philippines context:
    • It can be easily operated and implemented with limited integration, even in low-tech settings;
    • It enables lower transaction time and lower transaction cost;
    • It enables more efficient operations for rural banks, including reduction of reconciliations and simplification of accounting processes.
  • Unionbank worked with ConsenSys and participating rural banks to create an interbank ledger with tokenization. The payment platform is private, Ethereum-based.
  • In the initial pilot, 20 steps were eliminated in the process.
  • Technology partners: ConsenSys, Azure (Microsoft), Kaleido, Amazon Web Services.
  • In follow up to the i2i project, Union bank partnered with Singapore-based OCBC Bank, wherein the parties deployed the Adhara liquidity management and international payments platform for a blockchain-based international remittance pilot.  
  • Potential for national and regional collaboration/network development.
  • For details on the i2i project, download the full case study here, watch the 4-minute video clip.

3. Controlled Capture presented by Truepic

  • Truepic is a technology company specializing in digital image and video authentication. Truepic’s Controlled Capture technology uses cutting-edge computer vision, AI, and cryptography technologies to test images and video for signs of manipulation, designating only those that pass its rigorous verification tests are authenticated. Through the public blockchain, Truepic creates an immutable record for each photo and video captured through this process, such that their authenticity can be proven, meeting the highest evidentiary standards. This technology has been used in over 100 countries by citizen journalists, activists, international development organizations, NGOs, insurance companies, lenders and online platforms. 
  • One of Truepic’s innovative strategic partners, the UN Capital Development Fund (another participant of the roundtable), has been testing the possibility of using this technology for monitoring and evaluation of development projects. For example, the following Truepic tracks the date, time, and geolocation of the latest progress of a factory in Uganda. 
  • Controlled Capture requires Wifi or at least 3G/4G connectivity to fully authenticate images/video and write them to the public blockchain, which can be a challenge in low connectivity instances, for example in least-developed countries for UNCDF. 
  • As a work around to connectivity issues, Truepic’s partners have used Satellite Internet connections – such as a Thuraya or Iridium device to successfully capture verified images anywhere. 
  • Public blockchain – Truepic is currently using two different public blockchains, testing cost versus time in an effort to continually shorten the time from capture to closing chain of custody (currently around 8-12 seconds). 
  • Cost – The blockchain component is not actually too expensive; the heaviest investment is in the computer vision technology used to authenticate the images/video, for example to detect rebroadcasting, as in taking a picture of a picture to pass off the metadata.
  • Rights of the image is the owner’s – Truepic does not have rights over the image/video but keeps a copy on its servers in case the user’s phone/tablet is lost, stolen, or broken. And most importantly, so that Truepic can produce the original image on its verification page when shared or disseminated publicly. 
  • Court + evidentiary value: the technology and public-facing verification pages are designed to meet the highest evidentiary standards. 
    • Tested in courts; currently being testing at the international level but cannot disclose specifics due to confidentiality reasons.
  • Privacy and security are key priorities, especially for working in conflict zones, such as Syria. Truepic does not use 2-step authentication because the technology is focused on authenticating the images/video; it is not relevant who the source is and this way it keeps the source as anonymous as possible. Truepic works with its partners to educate on best practices to maintain high levels of anonymity in any scenario. 
  • Biggest challenge is usage by implementing partners – it is very easy to use, however the behavioral change to use the platform has been challenging. 
    • Other challenge: you bring the solution to an implementer, and the implementer says you have to get the donor to integrate it into their RFP scopes; then the donors recommend that we speak to implementing partners. 
  • Storage capacity issues? Storage is not currently a problem; Truepic has plans in place to address any storage issues that may arise with scale. 

How did implementers measure success in their blockchain pilots?

  • Measurement was both quantitative and qualitative 
  • The organizations worked with clients to ensure people who needed the MEL were able to access and use it
  • Concerns with publicizing information or difficulties with NDAs were handled on a case-by-case basis

The MEL space is an excellent place to have a conversation about the use of blockchain for international development – many aspects of MEL hinge on the need for immutability (in record keeping), transparency (in the expenditure and impact of funds) and security (in the data and the identities of implementers and beneficiaries). Many use cases in developing countries and for social impact have been documented (see Stanford report Blockchain for Social Impact, Moving Beyond the Hype). (Editor’s note: see also Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies in the Humanitarian Sector and Distributed Ledger Identification Systems in the Humanitarian Sector).

The original search for evidence on the impact of blockchain sought a level of data fidelity that is difficult to capture and validate, even under the least challenging circumstances. Not finding it at that time, the research team sought the next best solution, which was not to discount the technology, but to suggest ways to cope with the knowledge gaps they encountered by recommending a learning agenda. The roundtable helped to stimulate robust conversation of the three case studies, contributing to that learning agenda.

Most importantly, the experience highlighted several interesting takeaways about innovation in public-private partnerships more broadly: 

  • The initial MERL Tech session publicly and transparently drew attention to the gaps that were identified from the researchers’ thirty thousand-foot view of evaluating innovation. 
  • This transparency drew out engagement and collaboration between and amongst those best-positioned to move quickly and calibrate effectively with the government’s needs: the private sector. 
  • This small discussion that focused on the utility and promise of blockchain highlighted the broader role of government (as funder/buyer/donor) in both providing the problem statement and anchoring the non-governmental, private sector, and civil society’s strengths and capabilities. 

One year later…

So, a year after the much-debated blockchain blogpost, what has changed? A lot. There is a growing body of reporting that adds to the lessons learned literature and practical insights from projects that were powered or supported by blockchain technology. The question remains: do we have any greater documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims? It seems that while reporting has improved, it still has a long way to go. 

It’s worth pointing out that the international development industry, with far more experts and funding dedicated to working on improving MERL than emerging tech companies, also has some distance to go in meeting its own evidence standards.  Fortunately, the volume and frequency of hype seems to have decreased (or perhaps the news cycle has simply moved on?), thereby leaving blockchain (and its investors and developers) the space they need to refine the technology.

In closing, we, like the co-authors of the 2018 post, remain optimistic that blockchain, a still emerging technology, will be given the time and space needed to mature and prove its potential. And, whether you believe in “crypto-winter” or not, hopefully the lull in the hype cycle will prove to be the breathing space that blockchain needs to keep evolving in a productive direction.

Author Bios

Shailee Adinolfi: Shailee works on Public Sector solutions at ConsenSys, a global blockchain technology company building the infrastructure, applications, and practices that enable a decentralized world. She has 20 years of experience at the intersection of technology, financial inclusion, trade, and government, including 11 years on USAID funded projects in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

John Burg: John was a co-author on the original MERL Tech DC 2018 blog, referenced in this blog. He is an international development professional with almost 20 years of cross-sectoral experience across 17 countries in six global regions. He enjoys following the impact of emerging technology in international development contexts.

Tara Vassefi: Tara is Truepic’s Washington Director of Strategic Initiatives. Her background is as a human rights lawyer where she worked on optimizing the use of digital evidence and understanding how the latest technologies are used and weighed in courts around the world. 

Blockchain for International Development: Using a Learning Agenda to Address Knowledge Gaps

Guest post by John Burg, Christine Murphy, and Jean Paul Pétraud, international development professionals who presented a one-hour session at the  MERL Tech DC 2018 conference on Sept. 7, 2018. Their presentation focused on the topic of creating a learning agenda to help MERL practitioners gauge the value of blockchain technology for development programming. Opinions and work expressed here are their own.

We attended the MERL Tech DC 2018 conference held on Sept. 7, 2018 and led a session related to the creation of a learning agenda to help MERL practitioners gauge the value of blockchain technology for development programming.

As a trio of monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning, (MERL) practitioners in international development, we are keenly aware of the quickly growing interest in blockchain technology. Blockchain is a type of distributed database that creates a nearly unalterable record of cryptographically secure peer-to-peer transactions without a central, trusted administrator. While it was originally designed for digital financial transactions, it is also being applied to a wide variety of interventions, including land registries, humanitarian aid disbursement in refugee camps, and evidence-driven education subsidies. International development actors, including government agencies, multilateral organizations, and think tanks, are looking at blockchain to improve effectiveness or efficiency in their work.

Naturally, as MERL practitioners, we wanted to learn more. Could this radically transparent, shared database managed by its users, have important benefits for data collection, management, and use? As MERL practice evolves to better suit adaptive management, what role might blockchain play? For example, one inherent feature of blockchain is the unbreakable and traceable linkages between blocks of data. How might such a feature improve the efficiency or effectiveness of data collection, management, and use? What are the advantages of blockchain over other more commonly used technologies? To guide our learning we started with an inquiry designed to help us determine if, and to what degree, the various features of blockchain add value to the practice of MERL. With our agenda established, we set out eagerly to find a blockchain case study to examine, with the goal of presenting our findings at the September 2018 MERL Tech DC conference.

What we did

We documented 43 blockchain use-cases through internet searches, most of which were described with glowing claims like “operational costs… reduced up to 90%,” or with the assurance of “accurate and secure data capture and storage.” We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles. However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development.

We fared no better when we reached out directly to several blockchain firms, via email, phone, and in person. Not one was willing to share data on program results, MERL processes, or adaptive management for potential scale-up. Despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque. From this, we determined the lack of evidence supporting value claims of blockchain in the international development space is a critical gap for potential adopters.

What we learned

Blockchain firms supporting development pilots are not practicing what they preach — improving transparency — by sharing data and lessons learned about what is working, what isn’t working, and why. There are many generic decision trees and sales pitches available to convince development practitioners of the value blockchain will add to their work. But, there is a lack of detailed data about what happens when development interventions use blockchain technology.

Since the function of MERL is to bridge knowledge gaps and help decision-makers take action informed by evidence, we decided to explore the crucial questions MERL practitioners may ask before determining whether blockchain will add value to data collection, management, and use. More specifically, rather than a go/no-go decision tool, we propose using a learning agenda to probe the role of blockchain in data collection, data management and data use at each stage of project implementation.   “Before you embark on that shiny blockchain project, you need to have a very clear idea of why you are using a blockchain.”  

Avoiding the Pointless Blockchain Project, Gideon Greenspan (2015)

Typically, “A learning agenda is a set of questions, assembled by an organization or team, that identifies what needs to be learned before a project can be planned and implemented.” The process of developing and finding answers to learning questions is most useful when it’s employed continuously throughout the duration of project implementation, so that changes can be made based on what is learned about changes in the project’s context, and to support the process of applying evidence to decision-making in adaptive management.

We explored various learning agenda questions for data collection, management and use that should continue to be developed and answered throughout the project cycle. However, because the content of a learning agenda is highly context-dependent, we focused on general themes. Examples of questions that might be asked by beneficiaries, implementing partners, donors, and host-country governments, include:

  • What could each of a project’s stakeholder groups gain from the use of blockchain across the stages of design and implementation, and, would the benefits of blockchain incentivize them to participate?
  • Can blockchain resolve trust or transparency issues between disparate stakeholder groups, e.g. to ensure that data reported represent reality, or that they are of sufficient quality for decision-making?
  • Are there less-expensive, more appropriate, or easier to execute, existing technologies that already meet each group’s MERL needs?
  • Are there unaddressed MERL management needs blockchain could help address, or capabilities blockchain offers that might inspire new and innovative thinking about what is done, and how it gets done?

This approach resonated with other MERL for development practitioners

We presented this approach to a diverse group of professionals at MERL Tech DC, including other MERL practitioners and IT support professionals, representing organizations from multilateral development banks to US-based NGOs. Facilitated as a participatory roundtable, the session participants discussed how MERL professionals could use learning agendas to help their organizations both decide whether blockchain is appropriate for intervention design, as well as guide learning during implementation to strengthen adaptive management.

Questions and issues raised by the session participants ranged widely, from how blockchain works, to expressing doubt that organizational leaders would have the risk appetite required to pilot blockchain when time and costs (financial and human resource) were unknown. Session participants demonstrated an intense interest in this topic and our approach. Our session ran over time and side conversations continued into the corridors long after the session had ended.

Next Steps

Our approach, as it turns out, echoes others in the field who question whether the benefits of blockchain add value above and beyond existing technologies, or accrue to stakeholders beyond the donors that fund them. This trio of practitioners will continue to explore ways MERL professionals can help their teams learn about the benefits of blockchain technology for international development. But, in the end, it may turn out that the real value of blockchain wasn’t the application of the technology itself, but rather as an impetus to question what we do, why we do it, and how we could do it better.

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Blockchain for International Development: Using a Learning Agenda to Address Knowledge Gaps by John Burg, Christine Murphy, and Jean-Paul Petraud is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License