Two UT Schools Seek to Capitalize on Blockchain

Blockchain is all the rage these days. Best known as the backbone of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, the technology has taken the world by storm. Blockchain boosters deem it a “disruptive” technology. They say it’ll reinvent entire industries, fundamentally change how we see value, and revolutionize the internet. Detractors counter that it has few commercial applications, too many vague definitions, and little to no value. Regardless, as interest in blockchain has spiked in recent years, it has piqued the attention of the media, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Washington.  

The past few months, two UT Austin schools have spearheaded initiatives to highlight real-life, ready-soon applications of blockchain, a digitized, public ledger of transactions in which bits of information are put into blocks and added to a chain (hence the name). The process is fast, cryptographically secure, decentralized, and distributed across a peer-to-peer network of individual computers. In the past, a single central authority, such as a government or bank, managed ledgers. Blockchain could upend this by allowing the many nodes in a network to safely exchange information, securely manage it, and continue adding to the ledger in real-time—all without an intermediary.

McCombs hosted its first-ever conference on the subject, selling out the event and attracting a wide lot. Meanwhile, the Dell Medical School has partnered with the City of Austin to roll out the “MyPass Initiative,” a program to improve identity services for the homeless using blockchain technology.

McCombs

On April 13, with “Blockchain Opportunities and Reality,” McCombs dove head-first into the topic. The nine-to-five event convened academics, industry experts, students, policymakers, and regulators. Organizers cast a wide net, hoping to draw both blockchain evangelists and skeptics and pull from universities, financial institutions, startups, tech companies, and the government.

“There’s a lot of excitement, but also a lot of misconception and misuse. So how do you clarify what makes sense, what’s exaggeration, and what’s pure hype?” said Prabhudev Konana, a co-organizer and associate dean at McCombs. “We kept away from cryptocurrencies, because as researchers, we cannot justify currencies that have no underlying value.”

Conference-goers mulled blockchain’s pros: it can authenticate transactions and assets without the costly middleman. It is transparent, immutable, private, and secure. But there were also honest conversations of the policy, technological, and adoption roadblocks ahead. Blockchain, still in its infancy, is experiencing cycles of experimentation, startup, and failure. And there are real concerns about coordination and scaling.  

Cesare Fracassi, a McCombs professor and co-organizer, said that with “any technology that has the potential to be disruptive, there is always hype.” He drew a comparison between the fledgling state of blockchain and the prelude to the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The task at hand, he said, is to sift “the Amazon.com from Pets.com,” and find the applications, companies, and ideas that are bound to succeed and grow exponentially.

Frank Yiannis, vice president of food safety for Walmart, offered an instructive keynote on how Walmart tested blockchain-based supply chain software to improve food safety and traceability. Piloting the idea on sliced mangoes, they wondered: Can we trace the mangoes from source to a given store, keeping tabs on every stop along the way? Before the test, Yiannis asked his team to trace a package of sliced mangoes to its source. It took nearly a week. With the blockchain pilot, it took 2.2 seconds. This vignette is a testament to blockchain’s vast potential, Yiannis said.

“We want to push the envelope on this topic, and to be seen as the center where people come together to discuss it,” Fracassi said. Speakers of all stripes, a knowledgeable audience, and a contentious topic made for engaging and heated breakout sessions. “What we enabled was a conversation among entrepreneurs, enterprisers, and executives,” Konana said. “It was a huge success. I’ve been here 24 years and I can tell you I have not seen a conference that we hosted that had this [level of engagement].”

Dell Med

The MyPass Initiative aims to improve identity services for Austin’s homeless population. For this project, Dell Med is working with the City of Austin and the Austin-Travis County EMS. On April 19, the three held a “pop-up resource clinic” to walk program participants through how the service works. They explained its utility, highlighted the new opportunities created by the service, and gauged the feedback.

Blockchain was an attractive technology for this program because it is secure in nature and allows for data to be available anywhere with internet access, said Dr. Anjum Khurshid, assistant professor and director of data integration at Dell Med’s Department of Population Health. “As a medical school working with the community to help innovate and rethink health, we are interested in new things that can solve old problems.”

“One of the biggest challenges faced by those in our community experiencing homelessness is simply keeping track of the documents they need.” said Amber Price, a community health paramedic, in a press release. “If we can prevent having to refile paperwork, re-apply for access to services, or even just keep their ID and important records secure, then we can alleviate a huge burden for the homeless community.”

MyPass uses blockchain to give homeless residents a private digital key, from which they can securely store and access personal records at any time, release information to service providers, and maintain their records. The digital key, replacing physical documentation, will ideally improve homeless individuals’ ability to get health services, continuity of care, and access to new programs.

“We have had great excitement with city organizations, central health, community care, and other partners,” Khurshid said. From these organizations’ perspective, MyPass offers the prospect of coordination and information-sharing, which has been historically precluded by siloes between institutions. This is especially true for a vulnerable population like those experiencing homelessness, who have hard-to-trace medical records, insufficient resources, and lacking documentation.

This initiative is part of Austin’s entry into Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 U.S. Mayors challenge. After pitching its “innovative civic solution,” Austin received $100,000 to draft and implement the MyPass pilot. “[It] has given us the opportunity to explore a truly innovative solution for an acute challenge facing our city and citizens,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a press release. “This technology has already proven invaluable in helping refugees, and we’re excited to pilot it for the first time in the United States.”  

MyPass will run for six months, with the goal of engaging and educating people experiencing homelessness. But Austin, Dell Med, and Austin-Travis EMS also want to figure out whether blockchain is the best fit for this sort of social problem. If they find that it is, it would be a boon to the scalability of blockchain. Khurshid has high hopes that this program will catch on. “From a user’s perspective, almost everyone we have talked to has said that they see the value of a system like this,” he said.

Image via Flickr.

 

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