Unchaining the bloc

By on 09/09/2019
Talal AlBakr of STC Solutions: “Initially we wanted to solve everything with blockchain; we had to take a few steps back.”

Behind all the hype about blockchain, there’s an idea with great potential. But as delegates heard at the Putting Citizens First conference, public servants won’t put aside their scepticism until they see the technology in action within public service delivery. Ian Hall reports

Blockchain has captured a lot of media attention recently. But its proponents need to focus on finding examples of blockchain deployed in the public sector in action if optimism in this emerging technology is to be sustained.  

That was the panellists’ conclusion at a session discussing ‘Technologies’ at Global Government Forum’s ‘Putting Citizens First’ conference, held in Riyadh earlier this year.

Blockchains – immutable, transparent records of peer-to-peer transactions, built from linked transaction blocks and stored in digital ledgers – are most often discussed in the financial services arena. But given the importance of data in healthcare – from patient records to clinical trials – there has been keen interest from health professions. Improved sharing of drug research results and more efficient processing of patient records are among the touted benefits.

Talal AlBakr, vice-president for digital solutions at telco and ICT company STC Solutions (Saudi Arabia), typified the panellists’ cautious tone, saying that practical data challenges have stymied progress in healthcare.

Fruitless search

Reviewing blockchain’s application in Saudi Arabia, AlBakr told the audience: “Initially we looked at finding a solution with blockchain. We were initially under the impression that blockchain would solve all problems. To be honest, once we started to go deeper into the actual problem assessment we found that a lot of the data, specifically on medical records, needs to be structured in traditional methodologies that are outside of blockchain.

His team did, however, find some value in the technology – creating “a blockchain authenticity layer” around the traditionally-structured data. “So although initially we wanted to solve everything with blockchain, we had to take a few steps back. That’s where we are right now.”

AlBakr’s caution was consistent with that of his fellow panellists: Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder of the Governance Laboratory at New York University, had noted in an earlier session that blockchain is now exiting the “hype cycle” – though he argued that practical applications are now being found.

Stefaan Verhulst of the Governance Laboratory at New York University: “There are plenty of white papers about using blockchain… Do those white papers translate into actual practice?”

The first audience question during the session asked for the panel’s views on blockchain’s application in sectors beyond financial services – healthcare in particular. Verhulst responded by saying: “There are plenty of white papers about using blockchain [in healthcare] but the question is, do those white papers translate into actual practice? I think that’s where the challenge most often resides.”

It was the lack of healthcare use-cases that frustrated the panellists. Medhat Amer, senior executive partner at IT consultancy Gartner, said:  “In the healthcare sector it is still very early [for blockchain]. We have calculated around 105 use-cases in different sectors, and healthcare does not have any good use-cases so far.”

Turning to the audience, he said: “I would suggest, start with the basics first in healthcare – robotics can help; data management will be very important. But blockchain for healthcare, I think it’s a bit early.”

Medhat Amer of Gartner: “Start with the basics first in healthcare – robotics can help; data management will be very important.”

People power

Self-sovereign identity (SSI) in healthcare – defined by Verhulst as “where an individual can access his or her data and manage his or her data as they please, as opposed to being dependent on others creating the data and providing access to the data” – was also discussed. He emphasised the importance of defining SSI clearly: “This is different to electronic medical records, in that often with electronic records you don’t control the data. With self-sovereign data, you as an individual control the data, and can decide who to share it with.”

He went on to cite an example of SSI in healthcare that captured two of the key themes not only of this panel session, but also the whole Putting Citizens First conference: the importance of high-quality data, and the challenge of building trust – among both citizens and service managers – in digital transformation of public services.

“The challenge is that in order for that to work, you need an eco-system of providers that are willing to accept the record,” Verhulst said. “So if you go to the doctor and say: ‘This is my blood type’, and through blockchain you can have some kind of authentication that it is [indeed] your blood type, but if you have a provider who says: ‘No, I only accept a record that we created, because then we can trust that record’, then the whole system falls apart.

“So you need an eco-system that accepts the record and trusts that the validation of the record was done in a manner that conforms with their expectations of validation. This is the challenge in most ID systems.”

Gartner’s Amer again encouraged conference delegates to seek out use-cases for blockchain’s successful application in healthcare. He advised the audience to ask: “Who has done it successfully, and proven that he has managed to save money, time or effort? My advice is: use-cases is your starting-point.”

GGF’s Putting Citizens First conference was organised by Global Government Forum in partnership with Yesser and EY, and held on 30 April. The other members of the ‘Technologies’ panel were Prof Dr Toshio Obi of the Institute of e-Government at Japan’s Waseda University and Abdulaziz Alsoliman of BTC Networks (Saudi Arabia).

About Ian Hall

Ian is a former editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011), who has most recently worked as UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018). He is also a former news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.

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