Everyday we unknowingly rely on open data. From checking the weather to finding direction via GPS, we make some of our most basic decisions using this freely available data. But what happens when they’re suddenly gone? If the government decides to stop releasing open data, like President Trump did in early February, or a company decides to manipulate data on its products, like Airbnb did with its New York listings, what then?
Brian Forde wrote on Harvard Business Review that blockchain applications not only include financial transactions (like Bitcoin) but also public data. Mr. Forde suggests that public blockchains will enforce the validity of the data as time-stamps and signatures can then be compared against multiple entities, thereby decentralizing data control. If you need a quick refresher on how blockchain works, see “Understanding Blockchain.”
Blockchain Benefits for Governments, Companies, and Consumers
In his article, Mr. Forde uses ride-sharing companies as an example to illustrate how blockchain applications can benefit governments, companies, and consumers.
By submitting data into a secure blockchain with appropriate access levels, the government can monitor and regulate companies in real-time. Also, if a ride-sharing driver takes a longer route than necessary, this data can be made immediately available to the consumer and the local agency to improve safety and better protect the rights of everyone involved, instead of resorting to the company’s legal and customer support team. And on the company side, they can more efficiently comply with the law by using a digital, adaptable system, instead of a paper and person-based incumbent, outdated system.
While this sounds wonderful, how much of it is in the realm of reality versus fiction?
Are Blockchain Applications for Public Data Actually Realistic?
As of today, the open database that Mr. Forde is suggesting simply does not exist. But many organizations, such as the IPDB Foundation, are working to achieve serverless decentralization of data. The current challenge is to address the security challenges and merge theory with reality.
Take BigchainDB for example, which is the backbone of IPDB’s architecture. As BigchainDB connects to a single RethinkDB (a distributed NoSQL databse) cluster, engineering work is required to address a potentially fatal attack that could bring down the entire blockchain. This work is on the BigchainDB 2017 roadmap along with other core/security topics. Also, while an ideal blockchain would be fully Byzantine tolerant, for scalability reasons, Trent McConaghy, founder and CTO BigchainDB, argues that “theoretical BFT is not a prerequisite to decentralization; practical security is.”
This brings me to an interesting article I read by Jamie Burke, “99% of Blockchain Startups Are Bullshit.” His fantastic take on blockchain can be summed up in why he invests in blockchain+ companies and not in the blockchain infrastructure:
Now IMHO one of the ways these [blockchain] startups can become commercially sustainable and avoid this downward pressure is if they can successfully leverage machine learning somehow. It’s this combination of technologies that I like most because guess what: machine learning likes big standardised data sets and ultimately I believe this is the main promise of ‘blockchain’.
But blockchain in and of itself cannot be the solution. We need a blockchain+ solution: a combination of new technologies that keeps our public data open and sustainably so.