The Future is Blockchain (and the Future Is Now)

Posted on January 22, 2018


Estonia is not only mostly female and the world’s least religious country, it’s also the most advanced digital society in the world.
Today, almost all government services in Estonia are digital and can be accessed through secure digital identities. They’ve done this through X-Road–a secure, standardized and decentralized infrastructure that allows for multiple information systems to exchange data–and ambitious, progressive policies such as it’s “once only” principle, mandating that the state is not allowed to ask people for the same information twice.

X-Road is a government platform that has allowed for an enormous amount of innovation to occur in terms of public services. To me, the most compelling aspect of this distributed ledger is that it gives people more control over their own data and protects an individual’s data in a way that private companies do not. Think about it: how many organizations have your social security number stored in their private databases? *cough* Equifax *cough*
Since 2008, Estonia has been testing how blockchain can transform government. For example, they use blockchain to protect against cyber attacks and have a healthcare registry that allows people to see and control who has access to their medical records.
Do yourself a favor and read more about the incredible things the Estonian government has done and is doing in the New Yorker’s story: “Estonia, the Digital Republic: Its government is virtual, borderless, blockchained, and secure. Has this tiny post-Soviet nation found the way of the future?

OK, so when you’re done with that, I’m going to need you to get comfortable, pour yourself a beverage of your choice and read “Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble: Yes, it’s driven by greed–but the mania for cryptocurrency could wind up building something much more important than wealth.” This is a long read and very worth it.

In this article, Steven Johnson, highlights the importance of open protocols of the early internet and:

While offline, we turn to official agencies for passports, social security cards, and drivers licenses, online we have Facebook:

We now live in essentially a world of lock-in — Facebook is where we’ve stored most of identity for years and everyone we know is on that platform so moving to a different one is a lot of work. Since we store our credit card number and shipping information in Amazon it’s just easier to use it to buy everything.
Likewise, a company like Uber or Lyft stores our payment information and has a network of drivers to ensure a pick-up, but, Johnson writes, “the blockchain world proposes something different… Just as GPS gave us a way of discovering and sharing our location, this new protocol would define a simple request: I am here and would like to go there.”
The standards for sending a request would be open and anyone could build an app to respond: cities, bikeshare collectives, rickshaw drivers, even a transit agency could pipe in and remind you that it would be cheaper and possibly faster if you just jumped on the train. You would then have competing offers and could potentially make a more informed decision.
Today our digital identity is stored in a multitude of private companies and we borrow it to perform different tasks. And the companies that own this information can sometimes sell it without consulting you. Remember, you checked that little “I agree” box.
The Upside Down
But, WHAT IF that was flipped where people owned their entire digital identity and allowed others to see it when necessary. According to Johnson, blockchain has the potential break-up concentrations of power and distribute wealth more equitably. To me, it also could unleash some of the promises of the open data movement but on steroids.
One of the things that drives me absolutely nuts is how much government relies on large, proprietary software systems and databases. They are typically enormously expensive, often redundant in terms of the information stored (how many of your systems store addresses?), and don’t even get me started about terrible user-interfaces because oh my gosh that is a whole other rant. Not only do we get ourselves locked into long-term contracts, we also get locked-in due to the proprietary nature of the platforms and the perception of how difficult it would be to change to a different vendor.
I, for one, am still wrapping my head around all this blockchain stuff, but it seems to me that the future of government services is on the brink of being way more amazing. The creativity of public servants is being strangled by inefficient and redundant paperwork, data entry, and workflows. And government technology vendors are also constrained by needing to be complex databases and safely store information.
A recent Economist article aptly pointed out the irony in the libertarian ethos of blockchain and governments’ use and interest in the technology. For many of us in government, the objectives are the same: to increase trust, transparency, efficiency and democracy.

Learn more:

Close window