The Algorand Blockchain exists because its founder, Silvio Micali, believed that he could build a better, faster, more reliable, more secure and more sustainable alternative to the existing layer 1 blockchains. It's within this framework that the Algorand Foundation has created a team dedicated to impact and inclusion, investing and supporting those who also believe in the use of blockchain technology for a more just and equitable future.
Following the Algorand Impact Summit, a two-day event bringing together developers, founders, executives, policymakers, NGOs, investors and other thought leaders who see blockchain as part of the solution to the world’s most intractable challenges, the CoinDesk team got to speak with the Algorand Foundation’s Matthew Keller to dive deeper into its impact initiatives.
Matthew Keller is the director of impact and inclusion at the Algorand Foundation, where he is responsible for supporting and empowering individuals and institutions making use of the Algorand blockchain for social impact. Prior to joining the Algorand Foundation, Keller worked for a wide range of impact roles for global nonprofits and advocacy groups, such as the UN World Food Programme, One Laptop Per Child and XPRIZE.
The following is our conversation on the impact of blockchain technology, how to measure success for inclusionary initiatives and how the Algorand Foundation thinks about the future of on-chain public goods.
Matt, thank you for joining us. I’d like to hear more about your background leading into your time with the Algorand Foundation and what you’re working on today.
The first half of my career I spent in politics with a good 12 years on Capitol Hill, both as a Senate staffer and then as the legislative director for a large public-interest organization called Common Cause. At Common Cause, I lobbied Congress on campaign finance reform issues regarding money in the American political process. I spent seven years working closely with our Senate champions John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI). After that bill was signed into law, I took a left turn, in a sense, and went to the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome, where I was both legal counsel and an advocate around issues of child hunger for five years as an international UN employee. It was during my time there that I fell in love with technology and learning.
That interest in technology and learning led me to a project of the MIT Media Lab called One Laptop Per Child, which was a cutting edge project at the time. The question we were answering was: Can you get sophisticated technology into the hands of children living in some of the most remote places on Earth as a way to promote education? The project was popularly called “The $100 Laptop,” and I think we broke down some serious barriers at the time. From there, I led a project called The Global Learning XPRIZE, which was a $15 million competition sponsored by Elon Musk that proved the efficacy of dynamic and intuitive software for self-learning in reading, writing and math among some of the most marginalized children on Earth. I spent six years working in Tanzania and in the U.S. putting that together.
And now I'm here at the Algorand Foundation. The task laid out for me was simple. Algorand is the most performative, secure and reliable blockchain technology out there. Its instant finality, high throughput, quantum security and negligible fees and environmental footprint allow it to scale. My job is to find and nurture those projects that can best take advantage of this technology and its ability to scale as a way to bring about transformative social and environmental impact.
Of all the areas the Algorand Foundation focuses on in terms of impact, identity seems to stand out as one that seems to tie back into all the others. I would love to dive deeper into how you view blockchain-based identity and where it's heading.
It's fundamental to everything. It's the thing that, without it, nothing else can really happen.
Look, for example, at a place like Democratic Republic of Congo, where somewhere between 25% to 35% of kids are born without identity. What does that mean? It means that a sizable portion of the population are unlikely to be able to go to school, or access any kind of banking or financial services. They're unlikely to be recognized or counted as a citizen of that region, which then affects how government aid is spent.
Identity is foundational to everything that you and I take for granted. And so digital identity is crucial for a significant number of people around the world who can then take that identity and use it across multiple platforms with multiple government groups or agencies. And it's on the blockchain, so it's irrefutable, immutable and transparent.
Equal to this need for identity is that of education; we can’t implement these things without having those involved understanding how they are used. Is there an educational piece to your efforts as well?
One of the things that we try to do is to show that the underlying technology, which is blockchain, is different from all the crypto headlines you read. We educate folks on why this matters and why it's important through proving its effectiveness.
This is why a big part of our education effort at Algorand, is the demonstration of real-world cases by people who often live in the margins to prove the efficacy and the value of blockchain technology.
We also recently announced a partnership with the UNDP [United Nations Development Program] to offer a blockchain curriculum to their 22,000 staff. By educating a big agency like that, the knock-on effects are pretty significant, because UNDP has excellent relationships with governments in the 180 countries in which they operate. And if they in turn educate those government officials, then you have real learning at scale among policymakers worldwide.
Do you see a willingness to learn about these new technologies from groups like the UNDP and other national organizations?
Yeah, 100%. In fact, I recently gave a talk in the U.S. Senate that was put on by the Global Blockchain Business Council. And there were a lot of staffers there from many different Hill offices and agencies. Everybody was curious and wanted to know: What can this be used for? Homeland Security, for example, was there to understand how they can use blockchain for identification and how to use blockchain to reach people who are being affected by disasters.
I was on a call recently with the head of UNDP in Syria where the UN was trying to figure out how to get payments into the hands of people, without doing these big events where they hand out cash, which is ripe for violence, corruption and misuse.
And those are just two events that have happened in the last few weeks. There's an eagerness to learn, which is exciting for us, and a realization that this potential is far greater than what people know. It's going to take time, but the appetite to learn is there for sure.
I believe that having those educated conversations are going to lead to educated solutions. But you probably have a better idea of what these solutions look like in practice. Let’s use disaster relief as an example: Is there a clear path to how this could be solved? And how do you see blockchains impacting the future of disaster relief across the world?
Yeah, it's the future. Whether or not the future happens faster or slower is a different question. If you look at what disaster relief looks like today, big agencies are still using Excel spreadsheets and paper-based solutions, as are most other agencies that work in disaster relief around the world.
We just had an Impact Summit in India where I moderated a panel on disaster relief with speakers from the U.S. and India, and their problems were identical. The way they do it is antiquated, and the response time is between nine and 18 months for people to get the relief they need. You would not believe how ancient it feels.
There’s no doubt that blockchain can help correct these issues. This is one of the places where I'm pretty certain that blockchain is going to revolutionize the way people receive assistance in emergencies, partly because a key to this will be digital, decentralized identities. These identities will be owned by the survivor, who can then use that identity to seek assistance for multiple disasters across multiple agencies, and which also allows for those agencies to ensure that person is not abusing the system. We’ll be looking at this closely in 2024 as several agencies in the U.S. will begin to provide relief to designated families through something we have invested in called the Kare Survivor Wallet.
And another area for disruption is supply chain. There's no question in my mind that blockchain will be the foundation for most supply chains in the world.
Yeah, let's jump into supply chain and supply chain transparency. I'm curious to see how Algorand is positioning itself to solve these problems that you seem pretty bullish on.
I'm especially bullish because of the transparency and traceability of blockchain. One of the notable companies building on Algorand is WholeChain, which was created to bring visibility to fragmented supply chains and is partnering with some of the biggest companies in the world to do so. More and more people want to know where their product is coming from, and more and more regulators are demanding it.
Because blockchain provides transparency and traceability, the ability to track a product back to its source, through the entire supply chain, is transformative. It’s a game changer.
For example, some problems I witnessed while at the UN World Food Programme were proving that smallholder farmers are the ones that actually produce these products and ensuring that the recipient of the product is actually getting the product that was paid for. Blockchain solves a lot of these problems.
What does the future of the world look like with these impact initiatives being implemented on the blockchain? How is this future different from one where we continue to use the traditional systems?
I'll give you one example, you know, in probably the most difficult country in the world to work in, which is Afghanistan. And in Afghanistan, you've got 97% unemployment. You've got millions who run the brink of real hunger. It's a mess. It's an absolute mess.
We have supported a payments platform called HesabPay with a substantial investment, which is a payments platform that allows organizations to provide aid to beneficiaries in Afghanistan. Through HesabPay, the UN can provide resources to people who are unemployed and in dire need of support.
Those payments are instantaneous, and not only get into the hands of vulnerable people in a safe way, but they're also traceable. So the agency that actually gives the money knows that the money is not being misused by government officials, or being intercepted by middlemen.
So those two pieces – instantaneous receipt which is safe and effective and traceability/trackability, which precludes the possibility of corruption – are transformational from my vantage point. Going forward, cash-based assistance within multilateral institutions will be moving toward blockchain solutions in the next few years.
How do you measure success for impact initiatives? What does success look like for the Foundation and for those supported by your efforts?
Yeah, it's a good question. I think it's about use and access. More access for previously marginalized individuals to a multitude of the services. Whether it's low fees when it comes to remittances, or in Afghanistan, for example, can more women get direct benefits more efficiently, quickly and safely by using a platform built on Algorand? In that particular case, a randomized control trial done by the London School of Economics answered with a resounding yes.
So there are concrete outcomes that we look for. And a primary one is access in a more effective way that provides direct benefits to marginalized individuals, particularly in distressed areas. And these goals can be quantified.
Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?
At our Impact Summit in India, we highlighted all the work being done on the Algorand blockchain for impact, whether it's financial inclusion, environmental sustainability or impact more broadly. And when you bring all those people together, you see that there's something happening that is pretty profound in terms of how we're going to move forward to support the most marginalized populations in the world. I mean, in India alone, the projects that are underway – or about to get underway – are game changing. It is extraordinary to see all these young entrepreneurs who are daring enough to believe they can make a difference. And the use of this technology, particularly when it's in the hands of people building for impact, is really inspiring. When looking at the people we invest in, we partner with, we support, I just see nothing but hope. The ideas that come out of these people are so fascinating and groundbreaking that, if that's the future, I'm pretty happy with it.