Blockchain hype is at a fever pitch. The distributed ledger technology is hailed as a cure for everything from identity management to electronic health records and securing the Internet of Things. Blockchain provides a secure, reliable matter of record for transactions between independent parties, entities or companies. There are industry trade groups, a Congressional Blockchain Caucus and frequent panel discussions to raise awareness.
Federal agencies are plunging ahead, both on their own and in concert with the General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology Office (GSA ECTO). The office groups blockchain with artificial intelligence and robotic automation, social and collaborative technologies, and virtual and augmented reality as its four most critical technologies. Its goal: Develop use cases and roadmaps to hasten government adoption and success with these new technologies.
“There’s a number of people who assume that fed agencies aren’t looking at things like blockchain,” Justin Herman, emerging technology lead and evangelist at GSA ECTO, told a gathering at the State of the Net Conference held Jan. 29 in Washington, D.C. “We got involved in blockchain because there were so many federal agencies coming to the table demanding government wide programs to explore the technology. People had already done analysis on what specific use cases they thought they had and wanted to be able to invest in it.”
Now his office is working with more than 320 federal, state and local agencies interested in one or more of its four emerging tech categories. “A lot of that is blockchain,” Herman said. “Some have already done successful pilots. We hear identity management, supply chain management…. We should be exploring those things together, not in little silos, not in walled gardens, but in public.”
Among those interested:
- The Joint Staff’s J4 Logistics Directorate and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Maintenance, Policy and Programs are collaborating on a project to create a digital supply chain, enabled by additive manufacturing (also known as 3-D Printing). Blockchain’s role would be to secure the integrity of 3-D printing files, seen as “especially vulnerable to cyber threats and intrusions.” The Navy is looking at the same concept.“The ability to secure and securely share data throughout the manufacturing process (from design, prototyping, testing, production and ultimately disposal) is critical to Additive Manufacturing and will form the foundation for future advanced manufacturing initiatives,” writes Lt. Cmdr. Jon McCarter, a member of the Fiscal 2017 Secretary of the Navy Naval Innovation Advisory Council (NIAC).
- The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (OUSD (AT&L)) Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) has similar designs on blockchain, seeing it as a potential solution for ensuring data provenance, according to a solicitation published Jan. 29.
- The Centers for Disease Control’s Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services is interested in using blockchain for public health tracking, such as maintaining a large, reliable, current and shared database of opioid abuse or managing health data during crises. Blockchain’s distributed ledger system ensures that when one user updates the chain, everyone sees the same data, solving a major shortfall today, when researchers are often working with different versions of the same or similar data sets, rather than the same, unified data.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has similar interests in sharing health data for large-scale clinical trials.
- The Office of Personnel Management last fall sought ideas for how to create a new consolidated Employee Digital Record that would track an employee’s skills, performance and experience over the course of an entire career, using blockchain as a means to ensure records are up to date and to speed the process of transfers from one agency to another.
Herman sees his mission as bringing agencies together so they can combine expertise and resources and more quickly make progress. “There are multiple government agencies right now exploring electronic health records with blockchain,” he said. “But we can already see the hurdles with this because they are separate efforts, so we’re adding barriers. We’ve got to design new and better ways to move across agencies, across bureaucracies and silos, to test, evaluate and adopt this technology. It should be eight agencies working together on one pilot, not eight separate pilots on one particular thing.”
The Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) is an industry group advocating for blockchain technology and trying to take a similar approach in the commercial sector to what GSA is doing in the federal government. “We try to break down these traditionally siloed communities,” said Mercina Tilleman-Dick, chief operating officer for the GBBC.
These days, that means trying to get people together to talk about standards and regulation and connecting those who are having success with others just beginning to think about such issues. “Blockchain is not going to solve every problem,” Tilleman-Dick said. It could prove effective in a range of use cases where secure, up-to-date, public records are essential.
Take property records, for example. The Republic of Georgia moved all its land titles onto a blockchain-based system in 2017, Sweden is exploring the idea and the city of South Burlington, Vt., is working on a blockchain pilot for local real estate transactions. Patrick Byrne, founder of Overstock.com and its subsidiary Medici Ventures, announced in December he’s funding a startup expressly to develop a global property registry system using blockchain technology.
“I think over the next decade it will fundamentally alter many of the systems that power everyday life,” GBBC’s Tilleman-Dick said.
“Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize all of our supply chains. From machine parts to food safety,” said Adi Gadwale, chief enterprise architect for systems integrator General Dynamics Information Technology. “We will be able to look up the provenance and history of an item, ensuring it is genuine and tracing the life of its creation along the supply chain.
“Secure entries, immutable and created throughout the life of an object, allow for secure sourcing, eliminate fraud, forgeries and ensure food safety,” Gadwale said. “Wal-Mart has already begun trials of blockchain with food safety in mind.”
Hilary Swab Gawrilow, legislative director and counsel in the office of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) who is among the Congressional Blockchain Caucus leaders, said the government needs to do more to facilitate understanding of the technology. The rapid rise in value of bitcoin and the overall wild fluctuations in value and speculation in digital cryptocurrencies, has done much to raise awareness. Yet it does not necessarily instill confidence in the concepts behind blockchain and distributed ledger technology.
“There are potential government applications or programs that deserve notice and study,” Swab Gawrilow said.
Identity management is a major challenge for agencies today. In citizen engagement, citizens may have accounts with multiple agencies. Finding a way to verify status without having to build complicated links between disparate systems to enable benefits or confirm program eligibility would be valuable. The same is true for program accountability. “Being able to verify transactions – would be another great way to use blockchain technology.”
That’s where the caucus is coming from: A lot of this is around education. Lawmakers have all heard of bitcoin, whether in a positive or negative way. “They understand what it is, Gawrilow said. “But they don’t necessarily understand the underlying technology.” The caucus’ mission is to help inform the community.
Like GSA’s Herman, Gawrilow favors agency collaboration on new technology projects and pilots. “HHS did a hackathon on blockchain. The Postal Service put out a paper, and State is doing something. DHS is doing something. It’s every agency almost,” she said. “We’ve kicked around the idea of asking the administration to start a commission around blockchain.”
That, in turn, might surface issues requiring legislative action – “tweaks to the law” that underlie programs, such as specifications on information access, or a prescribed means of sharing or verifying data. That’s where lawmakers could be most helpful.
Herman, for his part, sees GSA as trying to fill that role, and to fill it in such a way that his agency can tie together blockchain and other emerging and maturing technologies. “It’s not the technology, it’s the culture,” he said. “So much in federal tech is approached as some zero-sum game, that if an agency is dedicating time to focus and investigate a technology like blockchain, people freak out because they’re not paying attention to cloud or something else.”
Agencies need to pool resources and intelligence, think in terms of shared services and shared approaches, break down walls and look holistically at their challenges to find common ground.
That’s where the payoff will come. Otherwise, Herman asks, “What does it matter if the knowledge developed isn’t shared?”