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Microsoft Explores Blockchain Tech's Use for Social Good

(@emilyspaven) | Published on July 28, 2015 at 16:32 GMT
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The ways in which blockchain technology can be used to support social good were discussed at an event hosted by Microsoft’s Civic Innovation team in New York last night.

Taking place at the LMHQ venue in Lower Manhattan, the event was kicked off by John Paul Farmer, director of technology and civic innovation at Microsoft.

Farmer, who previously served as the senior advisor for innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, explained the purpose of the session was to explore the kind of impact blockchain technology can have when used in new and creative ways.

He added:

“Our team is in New York, we’ve been here about a year now. We’re here to work on the really hard problems – social problems – and to figure out what role technology can play in trying to address them.”

Farmer, who also previously played professional baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves minor leagues, went on to state digital currencies have the potential to solve many problems both within and beyond the financial sector.

Identifying use cases

Speakers at the event included Brian Forde, director of the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT Media Lab and Chelsea Barabas, senior advisor for social impact at the MIT Media Lab.

Forde, who worked at the White House with Farmer, delivered a ‘bitcoin 101’ presentation while Barabas went into more detail about the work the Digital Currency Initiative is currently undertaking.

She explained one possible use for blockchain technology is as a “canonical media notary”. Those who have photos or videos of crimes, for example the death of Walter Scott at the hands of a South Carolina police officer, could upload their evidence to a decentralised ledger. This evidence could not be tampered with after being uploaded and would help in the face of conflicting eyewitness statements.

Welfare

Another example Barabas presented was using the blockchain to distribute welfare payments.

She explained the way the US currently distributes welfare looks very much the same as it did 100 years ago, emphasising it takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money.

“Could we use the blockchain as the foundation for a digital payments infrastructure that would be much more efficient [and] cost less money also for the recipient?” Barabas asked.

She envisions people being able to receive their welfare payments in a “secure and highly verifiable way” via their mobile phones.

Another benefit of this system, Barabas claimed, would be the increased transparency, enabling people to see where exactly the government is spending its money and how it is handling the process.

On the subject of governments, she revealed: “We have governments coming to us saying ‘hey, we’re really interested in being proactive about understanding this technology and using it to improve our ability to serve the public’.”

LMHQ Microsoft blockchain discussion
From L-R: Anne Kim, Peter Kirby, Ryan Shea, Chelsea Barabas and Brian Forde

Voting and ID

Other use cases for blockchain technology were explained by Peter Kirby, CEO of Factom; Anne Kim, senior business operations lead at IDEO; and Ryan Shea, co-founder and CEO of Onename.

Kirby explained Factom is examining the use of blockchain technology as a central land title database as well as in voting systems.

Kim, however, emphasised IDEO is being careful to not “wedge the technology into a space” that doesn’t necessarily need it.

One focus of her company has been to explore how the blockchain can facilitate frictionless transactions, which make it easier to give to charitable causes.

She also believes the technology can be used in “democratising decision-making”, with citizens being able to have a say in the projects government funds are channeled to.

Shea explained Onename hopes to use blockchain technology to provide official ID for those who do not possess government-issued ID.

This has the potential to reduce identity theft as well as enable people to do things they weren’t able to do previously, such as open a bank account, receive government benefits and vote in elections.

A tribute

Farmer rounded off the event with a tribute to 29-year-old Faigy Mayer, founder and CEO of app-development startup Appton.

“A lot of you may know her or have known her, she passed away last week and she needed help but didn’t get it. I want to encourage everyone in this room to give help and if you … ever need help, please ask.”

Farmer encouraged the attendees to continue thinking about the topics raised during the event and to come up with their own game-changing ideas.

“Please leave this room tonight thinking how might you come up with new, creative and innovative ways to use these technologies or other technologies to help people, because that’s what it’s all about,” he concluded.

The full recording of the event can be viewed below:

Event image via Livestream.

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