In May this year I sat down with Michael Shafer, a humanitarian, academic and someone known for his ethos of getting on with the job. Since 2008 Michael has run Warm Heart Foundation with his wife Everlind. Their efforts making a difference in the lives of thousands of people living in rural areas across the north of Thailand and beyond. We met to chat about the smoke issue, a seasonal problem that anyone living in Chiang Mai will be only too familiar with. Michael has been pushing his own solution and we shared coffee to explore how technology can play a part. It got us on to the subject of blockchain.
If you know anything about blockchain or have heard people speaking about it, you’ve no doubt made the link to Bitcoin and crypto currencies. The distributed ledger technology is, after all, one of the main reasons for Bitcoin’s growth in both value and popularity; it provides the digital currency with the capability to trade and verify transactions in an immutable way between various parties. But blockchain is a standalone piece of technology, not just something that underpins the various crypto currencies. So what actually is blockchain and how, in simple layman’s terms, does it work?
I’ve asked various blockchain experts this question over the past couple of years and on more than one occasion I’ve been lead down a techy rabbit hole, leaving me with more questions than answers. Words thrown into the conversation such as blocks, hashes and cryptography, had my head spinning and I was left to feel none the wiser. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated: imagine there’s a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. This network is designed to regularly update the spreadsheet with independent checks by users at each computer. If you can get your head around that, then you have a basic understanding of blockchain. Why this has been so valuable in the crypto currency space is because it means that transactions can be validated in this decentralised model, leaving very little room to hack or corrupt the data — simply put, it’s harder to hack since the information exists simultaneously in millions of places. Very unlike traditional banking systems that are susceptible to both external hacking and internal manipulation.
But blockchain is going to be used for more than just currency and transactions. The global market for blockchain-related products and services is roughly $700 million and is projected to exceed $60 billion annually by 2024, according to Wintergreen Research. IBM now has more than 1,000 employees working on blockchain-powered projects and they’ve set aside $200 million for development, with companies such as Accenture, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft following suite with their own investments and developments.
Thailand is also no novice when it comes to leveraging blockchain. According to a report in the Bangkok Post in January this year, Thailand’s National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (NECTEC), completed the development of a blockchain-based voting system, ready for testing. Chalee Vorakulpipat, head of the cyber security laboratory at NECTEC, was quoted as saying, “Nectec developed blockchain technology for e-voting that can be applied to national, provincial or community elections, as well as business votes such as the board of directors. The goal is to reduce fraud and maintain data integrity.” Similar solutions are being tested in South Korea, Japan and in the US.
But it’s not just voting systems that can benefit from the technology. There are a number of organisations based in Thailand that are making good use of the tech to help accelerate social and environmental programmes. One such company is Wildchain who are using entertainment to solve real-world conservation initiatives through a number of unique and fun blockchain based initiatives. Their aim is to channel more funds into conservation projects by gamifying the fund raising process, and their first product is a mobile game that will introduce its users to the digital collectables market. Players will be become digital conservationists and receive magic eggs which hatch into random endangered species. The goal, for them to build and maintain a digital wildlife sanctuary within the game. I spoke with Florian Rehm, part of Wildchain’s management team, and he explained, “The technology allows us to create native digital assets that are issued on top of an existing blockchain and by doing that we are guaranteed scarcity of those assets. We’re not creating a currency, we are creating a non-fungible digital asset. Every token we issue is unique and represents an animal with different skills and speed”. This clever use of blockchain creates value for the players and with Wildchain being a non-profit organisation, 100% of profit made from-in game purchases is donated to real life conservation projects. “As we are trying to create engagement via entertainment, we want to give users an avenue to passively create impact solely by participating in social experiences and games for good,” explained Rehm. Wildchain is launching the game on Kickstarter this October.
Wildchain’s second product will come later when they plan to launch a marketplace for tracking and verifying investments made into those conservation projects, blockchain acting as the ideal medium for this verification process.
My own journey with blockchain has been along a similar path to Wildchain. As co-founder of Task, a platform that allows people to create impact projects that can be tracked and verified, one of our first clients was Freeland.org, an NGO focused on protecting vulnerable people and wildlife from organised crime and corruption. One of Freeland’s main initiatives is to protect Thailand’s dwindling tiger population from being killed and traded overseas on the black market. Access to the right data is a key part of their anti-poaching strategy and the best way to get hold of that data is via the smart phones in the hands of individuals in rural communities and forestry rangers patrolling the borders. By providing these people with a simple smartphone app that allows them to upload photos of tiger prints or other relevant proofing data, which when uploaded are geo located so the information can be tracked back at Freeland head office on dashboards, the work is automated and with all the activity being captured on a blockchain ledger, there is an ongoing database of proof.
And this gets me back to my conversation with Michael Shafer, the man on a mission to clean the air in Chiang Mai. “Not even the government can pay these guys [farmers] not to burn because money alone doesn’t solve their problem,” explained Shafer, who for the past few years has been developing a globally replicable, low investment-cost, self-propagating biochar social enterprise model. The model teaches farmers how to create biochar instead of burning crop waste. A process that reduces toxic emissions, at the same time leaves the farmers with a product that can be sold for a profit – “Show farmers how to convert the waste in their fields into something valuable.”
The government has been implementing punishments to try to mitigate the issue, but according to Shafer regardless of fines, the farmers will still need to clear their fields and burning will continue. What does any of this have to do with blockchain I hear you ask? “There are a lot of people out there with great ideas about how to deal with haze. And there are a lot of companies that would support these ideas by donating. But to be honest, no one trusts that their donations will even arrive, let alone be used as intended. One of the great services that a technology like blockchain can render is to provide reassurance. By implementing a tracking solution, a donor can verify their funding right to the end user, can know for certain that the money is used as intended”
We’ve been working with Shafer to help implement a pilot so that he and his team can train farmers in the biochar process and track the activities on a blockchain ledger. The second phase that will come in to play when the burning season starts will be to track the biochar process itself as well as reward farmers via the Task app, when they hit targets. You can find out more about Shafer and his team’s project at: task.io/michael/blueskies
One thing is for certain, though Bitcoin and Blockchain are intrinsically linked, blockchain as a solution has a far wider reach than only the crytocurrency space.
In the last few weeks you may have seen the announcement that Bitcoin Co., Ltd. will be halting its digital exchange and wallet services in Thailand, adding more uncertainty to the country’s digital currency space. But whether it’s tracking tigers, gamifying conservation or helping to clean the air in northern Thailand, blockchain continues to provide an answer as the underwriting technology for a myriad of innovative solutions.