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How Blockchain Builds a Better Future

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “7 State & Local Tech Trends to Watch.” Download the full guide here.

Blockchain is a software-based, continuously growing list of records. Participating computers can constantly see and view the stored information, ensuring that no one uses it illegitimately. This feature helps make blockchain secure by design.

Experts and blockchain advocates say this infrastructure renders it virtually invulnerable to corruption and hacking. They also claim it provides unprecedented trust in the accuracy of blockchain records. Adding to records requires intricate mathematics, making unauthorized manipulation of stored information extremely difficult.

State and local governments are examining blockchain’s potential for accurate, secure recordkeeping. Blockchain’s resistance to data modification makes it ideal for safely storing data in the long term.

Austin, Texas is testing blockchain’s potential to aid residents who are homeless. The rationale is that blockchain’s durability makes it ideal for documentation storage. People experiencing homelessness often struggle with safeguarding the necessary materials for receiving social services, so blockchain could protect items such as identification cards that help them receive needed aid.

“For someone living on the streets, holding on to these documents is incredibly difficult, if not impossible,” said Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s Chief Innovation Officer. “The longer you’re on the streets, the more your physical and mental health deteriorates.”

O’Connor said that Austin has about 20 city departments and 20 nonprofits that would benefit from using blockchain to assist residents. The technology would provide these organizations with continuous, secure and trusted information about Austin’s homeless population.

The city is working on a blockchain minimum viable product called MyPass Austin. If launched, MyPass Austin would reduce recordkeeping costs for city officials. It would also help those without homes quickly and securely assess the necessary documentation for receiving housing, medical care and social welfare benefits.

“This can help create an ecosystem of care,” O’Connor said. “For any organization with eligibility requirements, this would be a useful platform. This also gives homeless people a sense of empowerment and agency over their situation, which is something they don’t feel like they have now.”

O’Connor said that metropolitan Austin has about 900,000 people, 2,100 to 10,000 of whom experience homelessness, based on various health, government and police definitions of the term.

The challenges facing this population – and others like it in other communities – are distressing. For instance, Austin’s homeless community suffers from crime, poverty and mental illness. The city is also located in a flashflood alley, which presents homeless individuals with added hardships.

“If they’re living in an encampment near a watershed, we get storm cells that can drop 5 to 12 inches of rain in a given moment,” O’Connor said. “Flashfloods have gone through and killed people who are sleeping in encampments near our watersheds.”

O’Connor added that scarce resources leave Austin’s homeless population in often dire conditions. These situations make it difficult for individuals to escape homelessness, she continued, and their troubles usually grow over time.

“We have these people who have a catastrophic loss of family and networks,” O’Connor said. “Our medics have told me stories about people living in drainage pipes. We have people congregating around and overflowing our homeless shelters. It’s an inhumane position.”

Blockchain’s resiliency offers a potential solution to this challenge. Its infrastructure renders it resistant to corruption and mishandling. This makes it a strong option for safeguarding valuable information such as ID cards, medical records and Social Security numbers.

“It creates an audit trail where you can go back and look at history that’s tamperproof,” O’Connor said. “If you have a network of known entities who would otherwise need reams of lawyers and technicians to create data integration, you could create a more seamless customer experience by using blockchain.”

Blockchain would help churches, medics, police and behavioral and mental health counselors access documentation for providing social services to homeless populations. By facilitating more beneficial interactions between both parties, blockchain could help lay the framework for long-term care.

“It’s what happens when you build a platform that can connect all of these different service providers together and wrap their services around an individual, who owns their own history and story,” O’Connor said. “That person has it in their power to develop a relationship with the system and develop trust in it.”

Blockchain’s integrity means the technology could be used to gradually build complete histories of every person undergoing homelessness in Austin. This would help caretakers identify problems and find gaps quicker, potentially directing life-changing services to vulnerable people sooner.

“It’ll make lives easier for our service providers, case managers and medical practitioners so that they can collaborate on a care plan for people experiencing homelessness,” O’Connor said.

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