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Blockchain For What, Exactly?


Doug Meil of Ontada

Blockchain is built upon multiple previously established technologies and techniques, such as consensus protocols and append-only data structures. Nearly everyone at this point should know that cryptocurrencies today run on blockchain, but not all blockchains need be cryptocurrencies. Which raises the question about what precisely blockchain can be used for in the non-cryptocurrency use-case, and according to some, the answer is "everything."

Every new technology has a hype cycle, but blockchain's hype cycle has an amplitude that few technologies have matched. Unfortunately, the lion's share of misunderstanding about blockchain has come from within its own community. It didn't have to be like this.

IBM, Blockchain, and Healthcare

IBM has been loathe to miss a hype-cycle, and it did not disappoint with blockchain. For example, in a January 2017 article titled "IBM Watson, FDA aim to tackle, tame blockchain for data exchange," an IBM executive said:

"Blockchain technology has advanced and has matured.  At the core, this technology can address various frictions in the health system, such as meaningful collaboration and coordination in healthcare that require addressing privacy concerns, lack of interoperability, and the issue of trustworthiness of data."

… and then went on to also say …

"For providers it can provide the continuity of the health record and the longitudinal 360 view of the patient that the providers need in order to provide the health services to the patient."

I have emphasized certain words in the quotations, as the phrases "privacy concerns," "continuity of the health record," and "longitudinal 360 view of the patient" mean specific things in healthcare. Yet how blockchain would specifically address those points is never made clear.

The reason this specific article is so personally important is that I had to respond to a customer about it back when I was at IBM Watson Health.  One of our unit's (healthcare) customers saw the story and wondered what these words meant for them, and wondered and worried if their data was going to wind up on a blockchain. I had to start learning about blockchain defensively, and the task was made more complicated because IBM's Blockchain group couldn't explain any of the claims in the article. I started reading about Hyperledger, a blockchain framework favored by IBM for private blockchain use-cases.

Consider the following high-level blockchain architecture diagram from the Hyperledger project, with respect to key questions that I typically don't see addressed well enough with private blockchain use-cases:

Graphical user interface, diagram, applicationDescription automatically generated

  • Peers
    • Continuing the healthcare example above for discussion, who are the peers in the network?
    • Are patients expected to operate a peer node? If yes, that opens a ton of questions. If no, then why do patients care about blockchain, specifically?
    • Are healthcare organizations running peer nodes? What is the onboarding (and offboarding) process and technical requirements?
    • Who else is operating a peer node in this network?
    • If a blockchain network only has a very small number of peers (or perhaps just one), then what is the point of a blockchain network in that use case?
  • Data
    • "On-Chain" – on-chain data refers to data in the ledger. Which data specifically is to be stored in the ledger is an important question, given that the ledger is both immutable and ostensibly visible to all parties in the blockchain network. If this data is somehow not visible to all parties in the network, how precisely does that happen?
    • "Off-Chain" – this is data that is stored in any other datastore that happens to be co-deployed with a blockchain solution. 

I concede private blockchains might actually be useful and entirely appropriate in some cases—it's a big world and there are a lot of problems to solve. However, to paraphrase Carl Sagan (who was in turn paraphrasing LaPlace), extraordinary industrial claims require extraordinary reference implementations with documentation to review if those claims are to be taken seriously and made actionable.

Amazon's Second HQ/UnifyProject

Amazon's Second HQ solicitation in 2017 was both genius and utterly cynical. Amazon had no doubt started with a short-list of target cities, but making it an open bid process had the makings of a lottery stampede. My hometown of Cleveland, OH, realistically didn't have a chance of becoming the second headquarters, but I don't fault any of the city leaders at least submitting something and going through the process. The city residents, however, at least deserved an honest bid. That isn't what they got.

Per a Cleveland Scene article that came out July 11, 2018, "An Essay on the Failed Amazon Bid and the Defective Philosophy Undermining Cleveland's Progress," a nebulous and fledgling effort called "UnifyProject" was at the center of the bid. The UnifyProject would address systemic poverty! And with blockchain! The article also describes that UnifyProject was touted in the bid as one of the top five regional assets, even though the effort was just starting and hadn't produced anything yet.  A few of the quotations from the article indicate just how outrageous this bid was, and it was obvious nobody ever expected it to be read aloud in public.

  • "The goal of the UnifyProject is to shift from a charity to an investment model and build an inclusive economy that empowers all to live in prosperity. The project focuses on using big data to drive efficiency in redefining health, optimize the use of resources and reshape the medical and health care world to invest in and ensure sustainable, scalable solutions."
  • Later, in the "Innovation and Entrepreneurial Spirit" section, the Unify Project was described once again as "an investment model" geared toward eradicating poverty.
  • In his story explaining Sobol Jordan's departure, Cleveland.com's Peter Krouse reported that the Unify Project was a "nonprofit-supporting organization to the county and other public and nonprofit agencies." When it launched, it would supposedly "employ massive sets of data, machine learning and blockchain technology to unify socioeconomic data at scale."

Cleveland is an old and proud city. It has a strong cultural institutions and centers of higher learning. It has a world-class healthcare sector. It has a NASA Research Center. It has an excellent Metropark system. It sits on one of the Great Lakes. Cleveland has its issues, but it deserved better than a bid infused with blockchain snake oil.

Blockland – The Conference

A blockchain conference called Blockland Solutions occurred in Cleveland in 2018 and 2019. I went to the Blockland conference in December 2018 for one day. It was a well-organized conference in a great facility downtown. It was filled mostly with speakers talking about what they might do with blockchain, and the potential of blockchain, and challenges in various industries. It was a little light on specifics, but it was a good conference. Coincidentally, PyCon (a large conference on Python programming) also was held in Cleveland in 2018 and 2019. Nerds with backpacks drinking coffee and talking with other nerds is where good ideas come from, and I support any event that facilitates that kind of interaction.

But momentum behind the Blockland conference stalled in early 2020 per the Cleveland.com March 9, 2020 article "Cleveland blockchain conference, Blockland Solutions, has no plans for 2020." It is important to note that article was only a few months after the December 2019 Blockland conference, and just before Covid-19 blew-up in the U.S. In-person conferences of every type have been hammered because of the pandemic, but it would be inaccurate to blame Blockland's demise on it. After two well-run conferences talking about blockchain potential, I submit the bigger issue was general confusion on—outside of cryptocurrency—what blockchain is used for, exactly. It's unfortunate because unlike Python, blockchain didn't readily lend itself to anything easy to explain.

Blockland – The Economic Strategy

"Blockland" also became an economic strategy for the region, and this where the story of blockchain in Cleveland really goes off the rails. Just skimming a few headlines and websites from the period shows the hype rocket exhaust…

 

From the Greater Cleveland Partnership from 2018 "Cleveland's Blockchain Evolution" :

"Cleveland leaders are organizing around a new initiative to transform and enhance our regional economy through blockchain."

 

From the Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) Website in 2018, "Tri-C IT Dean on Cleveland's Blockchain Future" :

"The goal, Umphrey told News 5 Cleveland in a recent segment, is to make Cleveland synonymous with blockchain. Cleveland is among the cities that are well-positioned to become a blockchain nerve center."

 

But this story more or less concludes with the Cleveland.com story from November 2021, "Cleveland's vision for Blockland has stalled. Could Northeast Ohio still be a hub for blockchain?"

The articles about wanting to improve the economic environment in Cleveland were well intentioned, but they didn't address the question of blockchain for what, exactly?

At the core of the "Blockland Economic Strategy" (aside from solving systemic poverty with blockchain), there was apparently an idea to improve auto title transfers with blockchain.  I'm not an expert in auto title transfers, but let's assume for the sake of discussion that is a use-case suitable for blockchain. A more pragmatic approach for the region would have been to ensure the success of that use-case and a few others (the vertical use-cases) first that used blockchain, rather than to make a push for a fairly specific horizontal technology right off the bat with the assumption that technology would be broadly applicable.

I wrote a post for the BLOG@CACM titled "Design Orientation and Optimization" about this dynamic, and all things considered, it's generally better to focus on making a few vertical use-cases successful first, and then to look to push for horizontal technical commonality for future similar vertical use-cases.

 

Links

Blockchain For What?

Bruce Schneier on Blockchain: There's No Good Reason to Trust Blockchain Technology

IBM, Blockchain & Healthcare

IBM Watson, FDA aim to tackle, tame blockchain for data exchange

Hyperledger Architecture

Peers

Watson Health

What Happened to Watson Health?

Amazon HQ2 and UnifyProject

An Essay on the Failed Amazon Bid and the Defective Philosophy Undermining Cleveland's Progress

Blockland

2021

2018

 

Doug Meil is a portfolio architect at Ontada.  He also founded the Cleveland Big Data Meetup in 2010.  More of Doug's ACM articles can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/publications-doug-meil


 

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