Blockchain@state Forum Generates Excitement In DC

On October 10, 2017, the US State Department hosted the Blockchain@State Forum in Washington, DC, which featured speakers and attendees from the US government, private sector blockchain firms, and the international aid community. The aim of the meeting was to “explore both the policy implications and potential applications of distributed ledger technologies advancing U.S. diplomacy and development goals.”

Bernhard Kowatsch, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, who spoke with ETHNews after the conference, described the first two speakers, Acting Special Representative for Global Partnerships at the US State Department Thomas Debass and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, as optimistic about blockchain technology’s promise. They appeared to anticipate that it would eventually deliver major disruptions to the fields of governance and international aid as well as to UN operations, with Sullivan claiming it might be “the transformative technology of our lifetime.”

Early in the conference, Justin Herman of the Government Services Administration announced that the government has premiered an “atlas” on GitHub that lists all the blockchain-related projects in which federal agencies are currently engaged so that officials and members of the public can stay informed. 

According to Kowatsch, many of the private sector speakers hailed from firms that have made real-world progress in implementing blockchain concepts. Kowatsch himself appeared on a panel opposite former US Chief Innovation Officer Tony Scott and Dr. Tomicah Tillemann of the Blockchain Trust Accelerator to discuss the types of conditions that enable blockchain solutions to succeed.

Speaking of his own work, Kowatsch described the WFP’s Building Blocks project, which uses the Ethereum blockchain to transfer virtual currency to e-wallets belonging to those in need, in this case, refugees. Six months after it was conceived, the project rolled out with a pilot program targeting 100 recipients in Pakistan. Five months after that, the same blockchain system for e-vouchers was deployed to 10,500 Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Azraq camp. Kowatsch noted that this process saved the WFP 98 percent of the banking fees that it would have paid by sending the money through conventional channels. The lesson he drew from his experience with Building Blocks is to start small and lean, then scale up once a given project’s success has garnered enough positive attention. His current goal for the e-voucher service is to make it available to 100,000 refugees in Jordan by the year’s end, and to integrate “up to 500,000 people – all the people in refugee camps that we’re currently providing food assistance for” into the project by early 2018.

Adam Reese is a Los Angeles-based writer interested in technology, domestic and international politics, social issues, infrastructure and the arts. Adam is a full-time staff writer for ETHNews and holds value in Ether.
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