Addressing Global Challenges with Blockchain Technologies

Al Sherriff, CBoxx MD

On a blazing hot day in May, blockchain experts and innovators came together with NGOs, charities and other third sector organisations in a conference room at techUK in London to discuss the role of blockchain related technologies in addressing global challenges. Collectively the group is known as “Blockchain for Good”. I was excited to be invited onto the discussion panel and I have to admit also slightly nervous of the ambitious scope of the subject in hand. My role was clearly to be the technical expert on the panel.

An inspirational opening keynote from Robert Kay, director of DISC Holdings paved the way to further sessions from pioneering companies presenting their businesses and real world use cases. The panel discussion concluded the event.

DISC Holdings were formerly GovCoin – relatively high profile in blockchain circles with a project focussed on working with the Department of Work & Pensions to trial the use distributed ledger technology in providing transparency and tracking in the payment and use of welfare benefits by claimants.

In common with several other first session speakers, DISC are members of the FCA Regulatory Sandbox and therefore thoroughly engaged in examining the role of regulation with their business. In April this year, the FCA launched DP17/3, an industry consultation on the need (or not) for the regulation of Distributed Ledger technology. There were other speakers from amongst the FCA Sandbox membership: Raphael Mazet of and Laura Bailey of Disberse. Both companies are aiming to provide a DLT platform for tracking charitable donations, though within broadly different sectors. The goal is to try and eliminate fraud and increase transparency and trust in the charity funding supply chain.

Another common theme of the day was the technical challenge of scaling with distributed ledger platforms, with several companies reporting they are gearing up to tackle that problem next, while one has been forced to maintain an off-ledger workaround for managing any surges in use. This provoked an audience question of “why are you using a DLT then?” The answer being that they definitely do see DLT as the long term solution and they are confident that the technology will work through and shrug off these early teething problems.

Karl Hoods (@karlhoods), CIO of Save The Children bravely presented off the cuff, without slides or notes and he had also just been struck on the head by a pigeon on his way to the conference. Save The Children have been exploring the potential for this technology for some time under Karl’s guidance and are also interested in funding transparency, along with child safeguarding and “on the ground identity” for aid workers.

The panel discussion that followed comprised the always massively entertaining Dave Birch (@dgwbirch) of Hyperion, Mike Brookbanks of University of Surrey, Rhodri Davies of Charities Aid Foundation, Sue Lukes of MigrationWork CIC and myself. Following introductions I fielded a question voicing concerns about scaling and fees. The price of Ethereum has risen massively since the turn of the year and even further since the conference! There’s a fear that this could drive up the network fees that need to be paid to operate Ethereum based decentralised applications, making it unrealistic to work with. In practice this should not be the case because the Ethereum transaction fees (Gas) are priced separately from the network currency (Ether). Effectively, the more you pay, the quicker your transaction will be settled. Making all this work in real-world operations does depend on very careful design and thought from the outset though.

In general the panel urged optimism but extreme caution in the use of blockchain in this area – an area that is basically aiming to help very large numbers of vulnerable and/or unbanked people. Right now, there are few, if any, safeguards in the blockchain world and there are plenty of technical challenges to overcome before the tech can be confidently used at scale. Customer Service is usually very primitive or simply non-existent at the moment from blockchain based companies. That cannot be acceptable within the ‘for good’ sector. There simply cannot be a situation where losing a private key means a vulnerable person loses of all their funds, with absolutely no recourse and nowhere to turn.

Personally I expect to see the issues of scale being resolved within the next year on Ethereum, Bitcoin and accelerated by emerging blockchain network technologies such as IOTA and Tezos. The actions of the FCA need to be supported and followed closely, particularly by this sector where regulation is surely a must have.

Our thanks must go out to hosts and organisers Dr Richard Adams (@r_jadams) of the University of Surrey and Professor Glenn Parry (@drgeep) of UWE in taking the initiative to bring the group together. Overall it felt like the goal of bringing together two different communities that do share broadly similar values has worked, sparking a number of new conversations, connections and ideas between those present.  I do hope the good work continues …

Further links with insights from other speakers I’ve not mentioned above are here: