Caption: Election monitoring data validation: one use case for an immutable public record

Why is a Democracy Organization into Blockchain?

NDI and the Blockchain Trust Accelerator believe distributed public ledgers are a new approach to big problems

Attending South by Southwest? See Chris and the Blockchain Trust Accelerator team presenting on blockchain for social good Thursday at 11: Trust Crisis!

What is this blockchain stuff NDI is working on? Isn’t that some sort of dodgy cryptocurrency?

Well, no. Don’t get lost in the technobabble - blockchain is a confusing technology with a simple purpose: enabling groups that don’t trust each other to trade things or validate information without an all-powerful middleman. In a world where trust in institutions, including government, is plummeting, blockchain provides a useful way to create new systems to empower groups to work together and define what truth is.

The short geeky explanation of the most common form of blockchain tech (there are many longer explanations out there) is that blockchain creates a ledger or database to track information or transactions; the ledger is public, so everyone can see it; unhackable; distributed, so there are many copies that are kept in sync; and immutable, meaning changes can never be reversed, forged, or overwritten. There a million ways that a *centralized* database is used today, from tracking our credit information (Equifax) to personal data shared with the government (OMB databases) to buying concert tickets (Ticketmaster). Blockchain tech can permit new approaches to coordination and collaboration that could disrupt many business, including all the above. Huge amounts of investment have poured into the blockchain sector, but most of it has gone into financial technologies (FinTech, in the jargon). NDI believes it’s critically important to think about the social implications of these disruptive new systems and ensure that democratic and human rights voices are at the table as this new infrastructure is constructed.

Information integrity is a particularly important aspect of blockchain-based systems. Anyone who can see the ledger can demonstrably prove that something was created by a certain person at a certain time in a certain way and if it has been altered. It’s easy today to modify text and make it look like it came from a legitimate source (John Podesta’s emails, anyone?) but in the near future that will become true for audio and even video as well. How do know what’s authentic? One piece of the puzzle may be validation, as by a notary, of created information.

Governments are often in the business of being the trusted middleman on certain things - but that trust isn’t always upheld. In the Republic of Georgia, land titles have been put on the blockchain, ensuring that everyone is able to provably validate property ownership - and any modifications, including illegitimate tampering, are visible to all. Anything that has to do with licensing, registration, births, education, or any data process could be disrupted by blockchain.

The blockchain isn’t the solution to everything - really, there's only a certain set of problems that really benefit from a secure, public ledger - but those that do will be looking at major disruption. The internet collapsed the cost of communications to almost nothing. Blockchain collapses the cost of validating information or transferring ownership to almost nothing. We don’t know what all that will mean - after decades we’re still learning the implications of the internet - but NDI and our partners at the Blockchain Trust Accelerator will be working to figure it out.