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Home News Edward Burton – How Blockchain could help fight COVID-19

Edward Burton – How Blockchain could help fight COVID-19


by Edward Burton, Developer

As a British expatriate living in Spain, I’m seeing the effects of the deadly coronavirus firsthand. At the time of writing this, I’m now on day eight of my quarantine at home with my wife and two young children (two and four).

Many people are contributing courageously to the fight against the virus, with medical staff and front-line workers such as police and even agricultural/logistics workers risking their health and bravely providing the services we need to stop a terrible breakdown in our society. I wish them all the best and send them heartfelt support at this extremely difficult time.

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Like many programmers my day-to-day reality hasn’t shifted too much, instead of commuting to an office every morning I run my development team remotely, the stand-ups are done over webcam instead of coffee and some of the agile processes are a bit more stressed as both internal and external stakeholders adapt to new working processes, but by and large, we are currently largely protected from the main fallout (albeit the early stages) of this pandemic that is enveloping the whole world.

This confinement has given me many hours to think about how a simple technology worker like myself could contribute towards the challenges that await us as a society and economically once this horrible critical period of the pandemic passes… I’ve had and discarded several ideas, from thinking about ways to rework supply chains using technology to help local businesses (a nice principal but too grandiose) to some kind of token driven market economy to reintegrate the stockpiled surpluses back into society once the panic-driven buying subsides (again, valuable but not too easy to implement!)

But one idea I’ve had (to me) hits the sweet spot of being attractive in both it’s value and it’s simplicity, and also falls into the right stage of the maturity level for the technology. This is the idea of immediately implementing a distributed ledger (Blockchain) to create a record of how this virus is affecting populations, initially on a national level.

*NOTE: We have built a POC system in a later report at Blockchain News to demonstrate the principals laid out here.

Why a blockchain?

A distributed ledger (imagine bitcoin but for information rather than a digital asset) is an immutable distributed record. Without going too deep into the technicalities, it provides a way to allow multiple distributed parties to access the same data and write to the same datastore while using cryptography to ensure that the data cannot be tampered with and has been uploaded by the verified owner of the digital key. It has been described as “triple-entry accounting for the digital era”, what it essentially does is allow collaboration between parties where there might be a mutual distrust. This sounds like something that might be useful for a global scientific community trying to overcome national politics right?

While the principals of blockchain are a perfect fit, the practicalities are also. I’m no owner of a crystal ball, however, it seems very likely that the coming days, weeks and months are going to continue to restrict the freedoms of people in our Western democracies in order to control the spread of the virus. Blockchain could help here, if we set up (start small, so even locally or nationally) a simple blockchain that had a node in every certified medical centre (could be set up using cloud computing in hours), then we could immediately start tracking the number of registered cases.

We can go further, an inherent advantage of blockchain is pseudo-anonymity, you are identified by your private address, and only your private address (you are not a person, but a hash of your digital key). This means we could assign physical representations of the blockchain addresses to patients as a record of the progression with the virus. (A simple USB stick or small wearable).

By writing an encrypted record of a persons age, location and status, this patient can now prove that they have had (and hopefully recovered) from this illness when the time comes to control reintegration into the community. This also means that we can create an anonymised data store of key medical data that data-scientists and doctors can use to extrapolate urgent details about the outbreak of the coronavirus, with minimal effect on civil liberties. The data is reliable, the flow of information is immediate, and you only exist as a hash on a digital data store.

Once the immediate contagion is controlled, more citizens could be issued with addresses on this blockchain, registering their immunity status. Again, anonymous data for the scientists and simultaneously building a ‘traffic-light’ system or health passport for the community. This blockchain could register (like the Chinese already did) which patients are allowed free access to transport, which patients already have immunity. It could also be updated to manage the flows of people, making sure that we are staggering the freedom of movement of people according to their risk. It would allow medical officers to quickly identify high-risk areas, and the best part of all is that it at no point would compromise civil liberties.

How? How would I implement such a system?

Well, speed is of the essence and as mentioned above, it would rely on a certain level of certified medical authority. There is nothing like an emergency to really bring people together, so I would set up a blockchain with nodes available to all qualified medical centres. These centres then ‘issue’ a piece of hardware, a dongle or a bracelet which would have non-personal details (male, 36, Barcelona) for example, this would then be written to the blockchain. The medical history would be published to a ‘stream’ unique to the issued address, this could easily be done using a web API.

Gradually we would be building up a bank of ‘treated’ patients, and we could create nodes for civil authorities and the police, i.e. everyone gets a bracelet with their name, location, age and self-reported coronavirus status. Now, more and more people have an address on the blockchain, which is where they can see their history with the virus, as well as changes in their status/permissions. For example, assuming “Barcelona” has a low infection rate, you might have a ‘green’ status, in the case that a cluster emerged, you could get an alert that might restrict many users from certain activities, depending on their medical history.

Using the same process, the authorities can write to these streams to provide updates, changes in your health status and/or permission and access to certain liberties can be digitally synchronised across the population, all without compromising your personal identity. If the authorities stop you and require evidence of your ‘permission to circulate’, you simply scan the dongle to see an immutable personal history, that can only be associated to you by proof that you know the address.

It is a wonderful way of sharing data without compromising civil liberties, and it simultaneously creates a digital infrastructure capable of managing some of the massive logistical issues that face us in this pandemic in the days to come…

The coronavirus doesn’t distinguish between individuals, it treats us all as equals. This is why blockchain could be the perfect weapon to fight back.

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