On February 21, 2018, the city of Austin, Texas, was named among 35 "Champion Cities" that participated and won acknowledgment in the 2018 US Mayors Challenge, part of the Bloomberg American Cities Initiative sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Austin's project focuses on using blockchain technology to build a system that stores personal records and provides a unique identity to give homeless people without IDs a means to obtain vital services.
ETHNews reached out to the city of Austin to find out more about the project. The city's chief innovation officer, Kerry O'Connor, took the time to answer questions and describe the task at hand.
The city formed a partnership with Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin; it was in a conversation between O'Connor and the school's Director of Data Integration, Anjum Khurshid, MD, where the two discussed how the Ethereum blockchain had been applied to help Syrian refugees.
O'Connor figured if blockchain could work for refugees, it could work for the homeless who, she said, can be considered "economic refugees." Displacement is a serious problem in Austin. ECHO, a nonprofit data-driven organization working to end homelessness in Austin, reported in a 2017 census that the Austin/Travis county region sees more than 7000 people living on the street on an annual basis. Austin's blockchain-powered ID system might help diminish those numbers and make a difference in people's lives.
When the Mayoral Challenge came about, O'Connor and Dr. Khurshid worked together in partnership with the Austin mayor's office. The goal was to develop and test a system on the Ethereum blockchain that would manage the identities of homeless individuals in the city.
The project is still in its infant stages, and O'Connor related that its efforts were preliminary and "pre-pilot." She said, "What we've received the grant money for is testing and learning and prototyping." Bloomberg is maintaining an active role in this process, and is providing O'Connor's offices a coach to guide the development and testing phase.
O'Connor estimated that there are at least 60 organizations, divided between nonprofits and city departments, that work together to combat homelessness in the city of Austin. "We're really excited by the promise of blockchain being distributed in order to make a more seamless experience across these organizations." She expressed a necessity for those organizations to be on the same page insofar as implementing such a system, which means that education and training on the rudimentary aspects of the technology are at the forefront of this effort.
"As part of our innovation work we have an advisory committee of people experiencing homelessness here in Austin, so we'll be designing this with them, not for them, making sure that this can fit their context," said O'Connor.
The first part of the of the project will be based on determining exactly what kind of data is necessary to build a profile for both providers of care and those who seek it. Often the needs of those living on the street vary from those of the facilities they interact with. "People who are experiencing homelessness have their own needs, they don't really care about our needs." O'Connor related that these things might encompass "access to a birth certificate, or a social security number, or a rental history."
The project's second phase will involve the testing of biometric systems that can be used to identify individuals without relying on a physical ID. O'Connor said that the city is open to exploring zero-knowledge proofs as a means to obfuscate private medical data from public-facing systems, in order to maintain HIPAA compliance.
Over its course, the Mayoral Challenge will see an investment of $17.5 million made in grants and other forms of assistance, awarded to initiatives focused on solving big problems faced nationwide. In the following six months, the 35 selected cities will undergo test phases for their projects and receive up to $100,000 in grant funding. In August, the progress of these projects will be checked, and four semi-finalist cities will receive an additional $1 million, while a single finalist will be granted $5 million.
O'Connor explains she is optimistic about the wider applications of a blockchain-backed ID system that allows those in need to easily obtain access to a suite of services designed to put them back on their feet.