Blockchain being eyed (and used) by cities, nations

By Matt Hamblen

In a recent discussion thread on a popular social networking site, an innovative chief information security officer at a large ride-sharing company asked for examples of actual deployments of blockchain, not just pilot projects.

In response, several CISO’s mentioned Estonia as a shining example of the deployment of blockchain– not as the basis of a cryptocurrency, but for use in national health and its legislative and judicial branches.

As a small country with 1.3 million residents, Estonia might prove to be a good example for city or county officials of blockchain usage. It would be ideal to undertake an investigative visit to Estonia in Northern Europe to get the inside scoop on its use of blockchain. Short of such a trip, however, here’s a bit of what Estonia says on its website.

Blockchain was first tested in Estonia in 2008 and has been in operational use since 2012 with the national health, judicial, legislative, security and commercial code systems. There are plans to extend its use to personal medicine, cyber security and data embassies, the government website says.

Estonia worked with Guardtime, a security vendor, to build what it calls KSI (Keyless Signatures Infrastructure) Blockchain.  Estonia’s version of blockchain sounds similar to the blockchain we’ve heard about that’s used in cryptocurrencies.

Blockchain defined

Generally, blockchain is defined as a universal distributed online ledger that cannot be erased or rewritten. There is no central authority over blockchain systems, but each participant provides a digital verification.

As Estonia explains its blockchain tech, because the property/data in a blockchain ledger is widely witnessed by participants, it is impossible to change the data already on the blockchain.

“History cannot be rewritten by anybody and authenticity of the electronic data can be mathematically proven,” Estonia’s website adds. “It means that no one—not hackers, not system administrators, and not even government itself—can manipulate the data and get away with that.”

Estonia says its blockchain approach has helped provide the second-fastest court proceedings in Europe. The court system there is paperless and legal claims can be entered via a public portal so that within one hour, a court clerk can appoint the first hearing. Software from Courtal operates behind Estonia’s court system.

Interest in blockchain in the U.S.

It’s hard to gauge actual operational use of blockchain in U.S. cities, but there’s clearly interest.

Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer for Kansas City, Mo., said in a recent interview that he hopes to begin exploring the use of blockchain with the city’s suite of analytics software.

“I like the idea that we can expand the number of folks whose daily input of data in their area of expertise contributes to the greater understanding of all of us with respect to city operations,” Bennett said.

When a worker in a water system installs a new advanced water meter, the blockchain system could perhaps trigger the installation of additional air quality or traffic sensors “without having to force three bureaucrats to make a decision.”

More important, the data collected and transmitted by the new water meter will allow the city to reach more informed decisions, he said. “That’s because we will see the potential second- and third-order effects and impacts of an action,” Bennett said.

Blockchain in  private industry

Almost every week, another vertical industry  group holds a conference on the value of blockchain. Financial technology groups are hot on the concept, but there are other intriguing examples.

Take shipping. On Jan. 16, IBM and Maersk announced a blockchain-based electronic shipping system to track international cargo in real time. Maersk believes a single virtual dashboard of all the goods and parties involved will add insight and efficiencies.

Also, blockchain adds double encryption and the ability for all involved to see when anything changes in a document to bolster security, a Maersk executive told Computerworld.

In one of the biggest developments of late, IBM’s blockchain software is also being used by Walmart in a pilot with Tsinghua University in China to track food products, according to a December press release.

Blockchain might pose yet another tech challenge (or even a burden) for many cities. Even so, it’s clear it will be a hot technology in 2018 for innovation officers and CIO’s to study and explore.




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