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High potential, remaining obstacles in blockchain for social impact

ImpactAlpha, June 5 – ConsenSys, the Brooklyn startup behind the Ethereum blockchain platform, and PeaceTech Lab convened in Washington, D.C. to debate the potential for blockchain applications to improve everything from delivery of refugee aid to supply chain transparency to media credential verification to impact reporting. Here’s the video stream.

ImpactAlpha has come across a number of early blockchain applications for impact, though for the most part, dealmaking has been slow going. In D.C., a few voices stood out with thoughtful questions about the real possibilities (and limitations) of blockchain in the social impact domain:

1) Combating fake news. Blockchain-based sustainable journalism marketplace Civil is working on a verifiable digital “watermark” to help news consumers separate real news from fake outlets and stories. Its platform isn’t open for the likes of Facebook, Reddit and Medium. “We haven’t thought about platforms being newsrooms,” said Civil’s founder Matthew Illes. An audience member asked whether there should be more “room for nuance” on what constitutes a news publisher given how many people use platforms like Facebook as a primary source of news.

2) Human-centered aid. In a debate on how blockchain can solve identity issues, particularly for vulnerable populations such as refugees, one audience member pointed out that some refugees are afraid of being identified, since they are often fleeing danger: “There are refugees crossing into Europe [who] are burning their fingertips [so as] not to be put into a system.” JP Zeigler of Collaborative Health Solutions countered that it’s a matter of explaining blockchain and educating “that community so that it becomes an adopted solution and a trusted solution.”

“Why don’t you educate the kids who are in the camp in Zaatari in Jordan on blockchain,” Josephine Goube of Techfugees fired back at Zeigler. She recently hosted a hackathon at the camp and watched as the kids cracked the UNHRC wifi passcode every week. “I bet you’d get kids who are smart enough to build a ledger and build something that will solve their own problem. Don’t push the technology to them. It’s an old way of doing things.”

3) A means or an end? There seem to be almost innumerable proposed uses for blockchain. One panelist who screens a lot of startup blockchain pitches, however, said that “nine out of 10 business pitches don’t need blockchain, they just want to start a token and get in on fundraising.”

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