Randy Cole, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission and formerly awarded Government technology The 25th Doers program, Dreamers and Drivers, left the public sector to become part of a company that plans to find ways to use blockchain technology to serve the government.
The move comes after a decade of public service. After spending 10 years in the private sector, Cole went to work for the state auditor in a technological role before becoming president of the Ohio Controlling Board. At the end of 2014, he assumed the position of executive director at Turnpike, and sat on the advisory committee of DriveOhio during his time there.
All the time, it has brought a focus on technology and an interest in how emerging technologies – autonomous and connected vehicles, smart sensors, blockchains, etc. – they would have an impact on the government and the people it serves.
"When I entered as a director [of the Ohio Turnpike] … we had heard of self-driving cars, we had heard of the "Google car", which is now Waymo, but over the course of the four years … we have transformed the way we look at transport, "he said.
This included 76 distinct technology-focused initiatives to modernize the organization, including telecommunications upgrading and the transition from a paper to a digital timekeeping system.
And he started to learn about a technology called blockchain. The idea has initially gained ground as the digital register system on which cryptocurrencies turn like bitcoins, but in a short time the technologists and public leaders have started to describe it as a possible tool for companies and the government.
Cole is going all-in on this concept.
The startup that is joining, Ownum, is based in Cleveland and is a bit mysterious. He's about a year old, employs a team of about 15 people and plans to use blockchain technology to make the government more efficient, according to founder and president Bernie Moreno. Perhaps it will also serve business needs.
"Our first goal is the government, we think it's the one where we think the low-hanging fruit is," said Moreno.
In addition to this, he and Cole refused to describe what Ownum cooked, saying it's too early in the company's development for this. Moreno said he is aiming to announce something more concrete in the spring.
For Cole, her new position will be to help the government to help people work more efficiently and effectively.
"I am very excited to work with many people I have known in the government over the years and to look into the problems they have … and see if this technology is suitable," he said.
He sees several possible areas in which blockchain could help. The technology essentially acts like a digital ledger, typically copied and distributed through a computer network, where transactions and information are recorded through mathematical evidence. Information can be encrypted – very important for many data the government works with, such as social security numbers and home addresses – and uses its natural transparency as a department against manipulation.
"Any place where the value is transferred or there is an asset that is owned or transferred, those types of [activities] they are really what the blockchain is designed to do, "said Cole.
The types of record-keeping activities that the government is involved in – for example, birth and death certificates, vehicle titles and real estate – are often cited as mature targets for the blockchain. Cole believes that part of what makes technology so attractive to such uses is its ability to connect to existing software. In the government, systems are often unable to communicate with each other because they have been put in place by vendors that use proprietary technologies or because old systems work on obsolete programming languages.
"[Blockchain is] an overlay technology that does not have to replace existing business systems, "he said.
So blockchain might be able, for example, to check multiple databases for a person's records and look for inconsistencies. Then it could update those databases with the most recent and accurate information, avoiding breakages and accelerating processes.
At this time, such ideas have had very little time in the sunlight, running in the complex world of daily government operations. But many people are trying to make it happen.
Count Cole in their midst.
"For me, working from the private sector, I could do more than I could in any government position," he said.