This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions .
Many of the methods we use to identify ourselves are remarkably fragile, the first example is the Social Security Card: a small, easily piece of stained cardboard (banknote paper if you were born after 1983) hidden in filing cabinets and dresser drawers through the United States. Technically, lightness is a design feature – according to the SSA, it makes it easier to detect tampering, and the lamination of paper is prohibited for the same reason – but the design choice assumes that the holder has a secure and fixed place to keep it. This puts many people, especially people living homeless, in a sensitive area: what do you do, for example, if your only bag is stolen, or if your social security card gets wet and falls apart?
The answer is obvious because it's frustrating: reapply, reapply, reapply. For many homeless people, this process of losing and reapplying for important documents becomes a damaging cycle, every iteration that harms their patience and trust for the services themselves that aim to help them.
The city of Austin, Texas, believes there is a better way. Last year, MyPass Initiative – a partnership between the city of Austin, Austin-Travis County emergency medical services and the University of Texas's Dell Medical School – worked on developing a blockchain identification system for people who have homeless problems. The Initiative is funded with a $ 100,000 grant from The Mayor's Challenge, a contest sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies that awards grants to innovative cities, and the planned final product is a platform that collects digital copies of records and ID of a person with a mobile number or email address, which makes physical copies redundant.
According to Anjum Khurshid, director of data integration for the Dell Med population health department, the idea came from similar programs implemented in refugee camps, such as blocks of the world food program in Jordan , which maintains the family accounts on an "authorized" or private variant of the Ethereum blockchain. Khurshid became interested in these use cases because the problems faced were analogous to one of the world's largest population health infrastructures, which is the widespread fragmentation of health data. This fragmentation is exacerbated in the case of individuals who frequently use emergency services while they lack the IDs needed to enter their story together – a common occurrence among the homeless population.
Blockchain technology offers a relatively simple and cost-effective solution to this problem. Instead of storing data on a number of individually managed databases, all interactions of a person with different services could be recorded on a single ledger using a blockchain, with a validated body of agencies and individuals that test each interaction at the time verification (eg RMV checks your driving license, your doctor checks your list of prescriptions, etc.). Ultimately, data control would remain with the individual, which splits access into a way they deem appropriate, for example by allowing placement offices to access their work history and so on.
Ironically, blockchain also presents some of the major obstacles to the implementation of MyPass. The concept of blockchain is difficult to understand (partly because there is no agreed definition) and is inextricably linked to the wild-western reputation of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. According to Kerry O & # 39; Connor, Chief Innovation Officer of the city, participants in a current pilot project are enthusiastic about digital alternatives to traditional forms of identification, but are hesitant about the use of the blockchain itself. However, after some tests, the members of the Initiative discovered that a simple metaphor involving a padlock and a notepad was sufficient to facilitate understanding of the technology and its potential benefits.
Another challenge that remains is similar to that presented by physical documents: what do you do if you forget your password or lose your phone? To answer this question, the MyPass Initiative organized a week of service design, in which designers were invited to consult members of the homeless population, apparently with great success. "They started solving problems that we did not think could be solved," said Connor. One of the solutions they invented was a mobile truck to provide storage and charging for phones.
And at the end of last month, the city of Austin and Dell Medical School held a hackathon weekend with members of the blockchain community of Austin to address some of the challenges involved in developing the current MyPass platform. The hackathon had four objectives, one of which was to demonstrate a minimum vital product that was able to offer a low impact user experience, with a focus on "low friction". To this end, the participating teams tested their prototypes with members of the homeless community for usability, and both the first and second teams received a special commendation for their efforts to hear feedback and insights from potential users.
All of these user experimentation attempts lay the groundwork for an ideal, seamless system where people enter clinics and employment offices without worrying about missing IDs or documents. The problem with old forms of identity authentication is that they affect access to services on a person's ability to keep track of an assortment of pieces of paper, a horrible task even for those with a home. This practice emerges from good intentions – practical concerns such as the prevention of identity theft and the verification of medical records – but at the end of the day, the lived experience of homeless people is an endless array of barriers and doors to closure. MyPass offers a step in the right direction.