Blockchain – What is it & a use-case

My experience in the past couple of weeks dealing with a real-estate property led me to spend some time thinking about a perfect use-case of Block-chain. Just think about how it can be leveraged for the benefit of the consumer.  First, let’s take a quick look at what Blockchain is all about:-

Blockchain!

Blockchain has been talked about a lot, mainly due to the craze around Bitcoin, which uses blockchain technology.

Blockchain is an open distributed ledger that can record transactions between 2 parties in a secure, verifiable & permanent manner.   Each transaction is recorded as a block with data & other record keeping information, into this ledger.   If the same item is moved from the 2nd party to the 3rd, another block is added (appended) to the previous block, thus forming a chain of block – Blockchain.  Once recorded, the block or the transaction cannot be altered.

A great example, that is easy to understand, is the one where IBM & Walmart are working on applying blockchain to the Food Industry.  As the food is produced and moved through the supply chain to the final destination (in this case a Walmart store), a block is added to the distributed ledger, with information as it moves through different channels (e.g. ships, trucks, warehouses etc).  It then becomes very easy for Walmart to get the entire history of the food item, from the farm where it was produced to the path it took to get to the store.  This can be helpful in a number of ways – during product recall, quality audit, to increase efficiency, and more.

Few examples of common use cases of blockchain are around financial industry (when money is moved from 1 person to another) and real-estate (property transactions).

Last week, I had to get paperwork done for our family owned property.  And that’s when I realized the trouble we were in.  Although one department in the town had added our name on the properly, the other had not done so, causing a lot of confusion.  We had to spend the entire day chasing the town department to do the needful.  We realized that was not the end of our work.  Each of the utilities, which are government owned, had it’s own procedure for transferring the utility to our name.   So a typical home buyer, besides going through the property transaction office for getting the transfer done, has to go through 4-5 more departments for additional transfers (Electricity, Water, Property Tax, and Cooking Gas).  And each of these, have their own forms to fill, their own ownership proofs to submit, identify proof submissions etc.  The entire process takes multiple days, wasting the time of the property buyer.

That got me thinking.  I had seen articles on how blockchain would help with real-estate transactions.  One of the articles was -> http://deloitte.wsj.com/cfo/2018/01/03/blockchain-and-smart-contracts-could-transform-property-transactions/.

This I believe would be a great improvement over what we currently have.  I remember when we bought a house in US, we had to pay money to some law firm to do a title search. This was to ensure that the title is clear and nobody will come later to claim it.  I truly believe Blockchain will eliminate the need for this, and help everyone know the exact history / records of that property. A few governments are already working on potential implementations of this and I bet this will be a reality in the next 3-4 years.

What would make it more efficient, is to go beyond the basic chaining of real-estate transactions / property dealings. What you want is a Blockchain system that triggers changes in other systems. So once the property transaction is completed, the system should be built-in, in a way that the completion of the Blockchain link (addition of the property transaction into the chain & the public ledger) will trigger an update in the systems used for Electricity, Water, Property Tax (& others as required) , effectively the new owner will have instantaneous updates and additional work on the buyer, seller and the various departments is reduced.

Once all of the property & utility related records are updated, the new owner is now free to move into their newly purchased property.  As the move happens, guess what, the new owner now needs to inform all the other public/private institutions about the new address.  These are the banks where they have an account, Phone Company, and possibly the online shipping companies like Amazon etc. Wouldn’t it be great, if the system integrated additional capability, so it can rely on the secure transaction made using Blockchain, to further trigger updates in other records?  This I believe would be a dream come true for the new buyer, who only has to worry about completing the Purchase transactions, doing the packing and moving to the new place.  All the name & address changes are handled seamlessly by the system.

All in all, it will be an awesome home buying experience a few years from now with the advent of Blockchain.

Facebook Saga!

Facebook Saga! – That’s the hot topic for the last few days. Facebook is in the news for all the wrong reasons.  This post is more about discussing the key points of the drama that’s going on over it.

A brief history for anyone who is living in a cave and has not heard of the latest controversy going on with Facebook.  You can read more detailed information here.

To review this briefly, Facebook collects information about everything you do when accessing Facebook (either via the app or via the web browser) – each click, likes, comments, posts, location from where it was accessed, and so on.  Facebook then does a lot of analysis on this entire data to show you relevant advertisements, content, and in return makes a lot of money from these advertisers.  The better the analysis and targeting, the more it can charge.  The more accurate information it can get out of your activity, leads to better analytics.  Unfortunately, someone (Cambridge Analytica) found a way to fraudulently access almost 50 millions Facebook users’ data and manipulated it for vested interests.

I would say there are multiple things here and we need to look at each one individually.

1

Facebook collects users data – clicks, likes, locations, posts, & more

2

Facebook analyzes this to promote targeted ads

3

Access to this data was shared/ compromised.

I will be referring to these points as ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’ below, rather than spelling out each one again and again.

I have seen a large number of posts where people are complaining about point ‘1’, and also about point ‘2’ (collection & analysis of data).  But this applies to almost all the apps that are being used and not limited to only Facebook.

  • Google Maps – In the beginning we used Google Maps only to find direction to go to an unknown location. Now, we use it to find the best route, or traffic data.  I use it every morning as I get into my Car for the office, to know which route out of a possible 3 routes I should take.  And I check it again mid-way to ensure nothing has changed.  Google Maps keeps track of my trips, and it has a feature called ‘timeline‘ which shows me where I drove on any particular day in the past.  So Maps knows exactly where I have been, when (date & time), which route I took and where I started and what my destination was.
  • I do a lot of running, and keep my ‘Endomondo‘ app to track the run. So this app has all the history of all the places I have run, the route and the time of the day.  And this history goes back a few years.
  • Even the browser you use to visit various web-sites does the same. It shows you quick links to the sites you have visited.  So it’s keeping track of where you have been (which sites).  It knows your location, what time you went to a site, how much time you spent on it and I am sure it’s collecting lot more
  • Of course, we all know that information on your purchases online is tracked and relevant ads start showing up on all the web-pages.

As you will see by all the above examples, ‘1’ and ‘2’ (collection & analysis) is done by every app that you use on your smartphone.  It’s done by every web-site you use.  It’s done by your phone service provider (so they can give you better offer when you roam, as an example).  And I do want the apps to do that to help me.  If Endomondo simply tracked my run, and deleted the data after each run, I would stop using it.  I use the app because of how it helps me improve my running.  I like it that the app lets me compare my current run from previous runs, find out the elevation, the terrain, the weather difference, pace for each kilometer etc, and all of this helps me in finding what I may have done right or wrong in that run, helping me improve my overall performance.  This is a huge benefit for me, for which I do not mind having the app collect & analyze my data.

I find it naive when people ask the question “Would you delete your Facebook account and stop using Facebook?”.  If you are worried about what is being collected & analyzed, then stop using your smartphone, since every app on it does it for it’s own use.  Oh, and by the way, your cable provider also keeps track of which channel you use and for how long.  So get rid of the cable.  So no TV.  Oh right, your car also has transmitters so the manufacturer can help you if you get stuck someplace.  So stop using the car.  And of course, your credit card company keeps track of your spends, what you are buying, when you are buying, where (location) you are buying.  So stop that as well.

So if you look at your life as it exists now, you pretty much need to go back 50 years if you want to avoid anything that keeps track of what you are doing.  And I bet even if you go live in a cottage in a jungle, you will find something will track your activities.

So my message is to “STOP” worrying about the app collecting the data, but “Always” check on what the app is collecting and what you are allowing the app to collect.  Make sure it’s collecting what you are comfortable with.  And also remember, the more data you give, the better your experience will be using the application.  What you want to worry about is, what you are doing/sharing, how much data you are sharing and can you be intelligent about it, and last but not the least about point ‘3’ (is the app letting someone else access this data).  You want to ensure that the app which is storing all of this data, is not misusing it and also not sharing the data with others, nor it has a way for others to steal this data.

So it boils down to “Security” and “Privacy“.  Is the App following these 2 principles?  Again Privacy does not mean no collection of the data.  Privacy means keeping the data to itself.  If an app never collects any data, you will not have all these advancements & benefits.  Take away all the suggestions of friends, all the forwards you get from Facebook then what you are left with a platform where you post data but get no feedback.  That is not what anyone needs and wants.  What you want is an App you can trust to provide right information, but also keep all of your data secure.  Facebook faltered in that aspect and is paying dearly for it.  But I think this is a major eye-opener for all the apps and also to the public, and I am sure Facebook will ensure security going forward.  In fact, this will ensure all the major apps we all use (Twitter, Google Maps) will re-visit and ensure Security and Privacy.  But do I believe this will not happen again, I don’t.  In the current times where people do not care for what they share, to whom they share, there’s every possibility that this story may be repeated.

As IoT (Internet of Things) and sensors find their way into each and every item & gadget that we use, the need for Security & Privacy will increase manifold.  We just need to be sensible, responsible and vigilant.