Putting blockchain in perspective for government organisations

Blockchain technology holds promise but won’t succeed if it is applied to old, failed or impossible ideas, says Jeni Tennison.

This month the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport published a report on blockchain, exploring the potential benefits and considerations of applying the technology to the public sector. 

You’d be forgiven if you were not familiar with blockchain or Bitcoin. In a nutshell, blockchains are a technological tool that allows you and others to manage information so that many people can see it, keep a copy of it, and add to it. Once added, it is very difficult to remove information. This can reinforce trust in a blockchain’s content.

Bitcoins are a form of digital currency, and blockchains were originally designed as a system to manage them. Within the Bitcoin system anyone can access and add information (such as what Bitcoins are used for, where they were spent and when) to the blockchain. Other blockchains can be more restricted. The technology is considered to be extremely malleable and has captured the imagination of enthusiasts.

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So what does that mean for those operating in the public sector?

In Walport’s report about blockchain technology he recommends that government should provide leadership and invest in researching and piloting the new technology in our cities; building skills and awareness of the technology; and developing standards for security, privacy and identity.

Developing standards is especially important here. Government is well-positioned to drive and reinforce standards that can strengthen public data infrastructure. Data is infrastructure. It underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society.

Many of the core data assets of our data infrastructure, such as maps and weather data, are maintained or regulated by the public sector. The use of blockchains may allow some of this data to be stored, shared and collaboratively maintained beyond those currently responsible for its upkeep, reducing the cost burden on the public sector.

This opportunity to build collaborative maintenance models is where blockchain shows most promise. As a shared resource these datasets could be maintained by those with a common interest,whether they are departments, businesses or citizens. More timely data would enable better products and services that benefit us all.

Perhaps blockchains will be a cost-effective way of helping to make this happen. Would blockchains help us keep our addresses up-to-date and accessible? Monitor air quality in cities? Maintain up-to-date maps? Or help us understand where our food came from?

While there is promise, this technology should not be whimsically applied to old, failed or impossible ideas. As with most innovations in technology, the concept can fall victim to hype and become overwhelmed with ideas that fail to focus on the problem we want to solve. Blockchains are just one of the tools in our technology toolbox. Understanding the challenge we are trying to solve first will help us pick the right tool for the job.

As government invests in deepening the digital and data capabilities of civil servants they can use pilot projects to develop an understanding of blockchains, together with the skills required to use them. They should also consider the value of convening people from sectors such as finance, agriculture and healthcare to understand the common challenges each sector faces and then work together to address them. Enlisting this support will help maximise collaboration across society towards common goals.

We ask others not to pursue blockchain in isolation and to consider blockchain as a tool among many others that could help deliver data infrastructure for the benefit of society. Data helps us to make decisions, as government, as businesses and as citizens. How we build our data infrastructure should be led by the decisions we want to make and the ways we want to work together, and not simply the latest technologies available to us.

Jeni Tennison is technical director and deputy CEO of the Open Data Institute 

Colin Marrs

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