Blockchain and Civic Tech: A Five-Minute Primer

 |   Soren Spicknall, MSFT Chicago Civic Tech Fellow

In 2017, conversations about blockchain technology reached a tipping point at which early adopters, developers, and enthusiasts were joined by large groups of curious newcomers from a wide array of professional backgrounds. As public interest in the technology reached a fever pitch, attention was largely focused on cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings (ICOs), and other inherently financial uses of blockchain solutions. Beyond the talk of money, though, a more altruistic portion of the blockchain community quietly asserted itself, one which confronts unique challenges in government and social impact spheres as the technology evolves.

Many people who begin exploring blockchain topics do so simply because they’ve heard the term and don’t know what it means. At its core, a blockchain is a type of database that mimics the structure a ledger (or logbook). Instead of an arrangement of cells that can be changed at any time, a blockchain is composed of individual entries (blocks) arranged one after the other in chronological order. When any data is added, it is added to the end of the chain. Unlike a paper ledger, a blockchain is co-owned by everybody who publishes to it, and the data it contains is made immutable (unchangeable) by code that allows each publisher to “vote” on whether the data it sees is correct. If any unscrupulous actor attempts to change a record created in the past, the rest of the users of that blockchain can identify the change and reject it in a fully automated fashion.

You might wonder why any of this would be of particular interest to the world of civic technology. In keeping with the idea that the needs of impacted communities should determine government and nonprofit technology decisions, there are many natural uses for immutable, distributed ledgers. One example is ID2020, a coalition between the United Nations, Accenture, and Microsoft to create an internationally-recognized identity for populations whose government identities are at risk of being erased for political reasons, such as persecuted ethnic minorities. Similarly, many governments are creating blockchain-based registries of deed or title transfers, hoping to eliminate the possibility of records being tampered with after they’re created. Looking to the future, there are also many social possibilities for blockchain systems that use publicly auditable code to execute collective decision-making within social impact organizations.

Major challenges remain for effectively integrating blockchain technology into social good and civic applications, and there are certainly many enthusiastic proposals for social impact blockchain solutions that don’t yet demonstrate significant advantages over traditional systems. This technology in its current form is only a decade old, and while it holds a great deal of promise, there’s still plenty left to figure out. Groups like our own Blockchain for Social Good Chicago are working to educate nonprofits, governments, and civic hackers about blockchain technology so that we all can wade into these waters with a better understanding of what’s to come.

Join Blockchain for Social Good Chicago at its next meetup on Monday, February 5. RSVP now here.