University of Surrey bags £1.1m to trial blockchain for healthcare, voting and digital archives

Project plans include using distributed ledger technology to give healthcare workers secure access to biometric data from wearables

Blockchain is the technology behind BitCoin – Photo credit: Fotolia

Academics at the University of Surrey have been awarded £1.1m for three research projects into blockchain, the technology behind the cryptocurrency BitCoin.

A blockchain, or distributed ledger, is a secure database formed of packages – or blocks – of digitally recorded data. These blocks can be controlled by different organisations, and shared with all partners, and all transactions are recorded, with timestamps, across all versions of the ledger.

The potential of the technology has been widely touted by the financial sector, and the government has also signalled it could be beneficial to the public sector.

A report from the Government Office for Science last year said it could be used to collect taxes, record land registries and “generally ensure the integrity of government records and services”.

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The latest research grants, awarded by the government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will look at how the technology can be used to improve the effectiveness of e-voting, digital archives and the use of healthcare information.

The largest pot of money, almost £490,000, will go to the work on digital archives, which will create a prototype distributed ledger to ensure the long-term sustainability of public records by protecting them against tampering or degradation.

The work is being carried out with The National Archives – which recently launched a two-year plan to use digital to improve the resilience and impact of its records – and will also look at how blockchain technology would fit in with existing archival practices.

The second Surrey project, which will receive £420,000, will use distributed ledgers to manage biometric information created by wearable health devices, combining it with blockchains to offer a secure way to share it with healthcare providers.

The final project, which is to receive just over £240,000, will look at how distributed ledgers can be used in voting and collective decision making, in a bid to make electronic voting systems more trustworthy.

Project leader Steve Schneider, the director of Surrey Centre for Cyber Security, said: “This is an exciting new collaboration between political economists and computer scientists, focusing not only on the development of new technology, but also on exploring the positive impact and new opportunities.”

The Department for Work and Pensions was last year involved in a small-scale trial run by fintech company GovCoin that paid benefits to claimants through an app using blockchain technology, which they could then spend with trial partners RWE npower and Barclays.

At the time, the trial came under fire from experts who were concerned about the fact it would immutably store sensitive data on benefits claimants and could give the government excess control over where people spent their money.

DWP later sought to stress that it was not running the trial directly, and has previously told PublicTechnology it was unable to offer an update on the trial because of this.

However, in response to a written question in the House of Lords, the parliamentary under-secretary for DWP and Conservative peer Lord Henley said in March that there had been “encouraging results”, and that the government was considering the next stage.


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