ODI’s Dr. James Smith on Blockchains aka ‘Undefined Radically Distributed Storage Technology’

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Dr. James Smith who heads the Open Data Institute (co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt) Labs programme and the software team which delivers software projects across the organisation has written a poignant piece providing some interesting and fresh opinions on the Blockchain. Particularly, pointing out, in his opinion, that storing data in the Bitcoin Blockchain is possible, and has been done since day one, but it isn’t really advisable.

Blockchains are designed to be immutable, to have data written into them and be available for evermore. Technically, that seems a desirable quality as it means you can’t go back and rewrite history: nobody can deny that a transaction took place, even if it was revoked later on.

However, technology, meet society. In the sphere of human life, immutability can be a major problem. What about the recent EU right to be forgotten ruling? What’s your legal recourse when the data you want removed from public view is stored in an immutable data store? Is there any truly immutable data?

Here’s an example: in the UK, if you change your gender, you of course have the right to have your new gender reflected in all official records. That, though, includes rewriting history and backdating your new gender, so that the gender you were assigned at birth doesn’t appear even in old records. If, say, your driving licence is stored in a blockchain, the old version can’t be modified. It can be revoked and replaced with an updated one, but the original record is still there.

Sure, you could solve those problems by storing only pointers to data in a blockchain, and having the data somewhere else, somewhere mutable, but then you’ve lost the resilience aspect of the technology; the data is still centralised, even though the index is distributed.

How then, do we design data storage in blockchains so that immutability is limited to the things that need to be immutable?

Smith has resorted to treating the very word Blockchain –  as a shorthand for “undefined radically distributed storage technology”.

Make no mistake, there is huge (and radical) potential in this technology area for data, and for society as a whole, but we need to understand how these technologies are best applied.

And whether it’s blockchains or something else, there are plenty of questions. How do we standardise storage in such a system so that we get a single network of data, as opposed to having to use a different storage system every time we want a new type of information? What are the data protocols for distributed storage? How do we talk about, and perhaps enforce, ownership and licensing?

We are exploring the potential applications of these technologies in the context of data infrastructure. This applies at different scales: global, national and city data infrastructure. It also applies across sectors: finance, agriculture, nutrition and global development.

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Founder of Blockchain News and The Hackitarians Foundation, Richard Kastelein is an award winning publisher and editor, hackathon organiser and entrepreneur. He has written over 700 articles at Blockchain News, has a massive network in the Blockchain arena and is available as a speaker and consultant. (richard@the-blockchain.com) Kastelein has spoken (keynotes & panels) on technology at events in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Belfast, Berlin, Brussels, Brighton, Copenhagen, Cannes, Cologne, Curacao, Frankfurt, Gdansk, Hollywood, Hilversum, Geneva, Groningen, London, Las Vegas, Leipzig, Madrid, Melbourne, NYC, Oxford, Rio de Janeiro, Sheffield, San Francisco, San Jose, Sydney, Tallinn, Vienna, and Zurich. A Creative Technologist & Canadian (Dutch/Irish/English/Métis) his career began in the Native Press (Canadian Arctic) and he later spent a decade in the Caribbean media. Currently, he writes occasionally for Wired Insights, Guardian & Virgin and his articles have been translated into Dutch, Greek, Polish, German & French.