Austin, Texas, is piloting a digital solution to the problem of homeless people maintaining their personal records: a blockchain ledger.
Using blockchain technology—a shared, permanent, and unalterable ledger used to record bitcoin transactions—Austin will link all service history and personal data for an individual. People would always have access to their own data and be able to show providers what treatment or services they have had in the past.
Lost personal documents create barriers for homeless people trying to prove work history or identity and eligibility for services. “It really prevents you from going about and doing the sort of activities that allow you to transition out of homelessness,” said Sly Majid, Austin’s chief services officer.
The genius of blockchain records is that encrypted information may be distributed like a webpage, but not copied or altered, making available data that easily gets misplaced because of multiple moves or lost when a homeless person’s backpack is stolen.
Blocks, or links of information, can be added to a person’s blockchain without damaging or changing the previous blocks. The technology has been likened to the internet in its robustness since it relies on decentralization: No single person controls information added to the shared blockchain, like a file showing when a homeless person first arrived at a certain shelter, and it has no single “point of failure.”
But the obvious concern over a shared public database of one’s records is privacy and government surveillance.
“If a society adopts a single system … where transactions are recorded on a single database as they are with bitcoin, it is possible—even likely—that governments will successfully attempt to control it,” wrote Kadhim Shubber, speaking of financial transactions in the Financial Times.
Though concerns for security, personal privacy, and liberty all arise when it comes to handling and distributing people’s data, officials believe the chaining of data for the homeless will help them control their own lives better and vouch for themselves as they navigate life in the city with no fixed abode.
Austin’s idea won the city a ranking on the 2018 Champion Cities list compiled by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the 2018 Mayors Challenge. The Texas capital plans a six-month testing phase to show whether the idea has “the potential to spread—and succeed in—other cities” and could net a grand prize of $5 million. —R.H.