Illustration of chain links, each made of hundreds of digital connections

Is Blockchain key to evidence-based cooperation against an international crisis?

The world has been caught completely off guard by SARS Covid-19 and compelled into a period of collective paralysis. The rapid unfolding of events has highlighted the importance of quick response and adaptation, to lessen the impact on health and on the economy.

Staying at home, reducing our mobility and washing our hands. Individuals have little else they can do to change the situation. Limiting movement and focusing on basic hygiene is helping contain virus spread, while taking a toll on global economy and employment.

Bold actions, such as triage in hospitals, millions of redundancies and businesses going awry are undesirable outcomes that most of us would not rush to reach. These decisions, which affect individual lives as much as shared societal values, including fundamental rights, had to be made based upon incomplete information, due to the absence of a common approach to data tracking and a deficiency in cooperative global health databases. The circumstances are problematic, with collaborative and targeted measures hindered and toxic "fake news" thriving while an essential learning process is unscrupulously bypassed.

Solving the issue in the long-term will require innovative thinking. Worldwide cooperation and standardisation will only make a sustainable future possible if we develop suitable tools to democratically and transparently record, validate and present critical data in international networks. This is where blockchain applications come in, to lead the way towards global standardisation in tracking and using public data – something we have barely achieved in the past, but that we certainly need now, more than ever. These applications alone will not solve all the challenges, but they can play an important role as decisive milestones for establishing cooperative evidence-driven action on a global level. 

Blockchain: a layer of certainty in times of utmost uncertainty

Blockchain technology consists of a distributed cryptographic database that requires data or transaction validation from its network’s nodes, endowing the system with a single source of truth and complete traceability. In essence, blockchain allows for readily-accessible information for the user alongside the latest democratically validated data. It eschews data manipulation and spread of misleading information, whilst providing transparency and privacy through encryption of personal data.

While doctors and nurses, police officers, soldiers, healthcare, food providers and volunteers are the linchpin of our society during this crisis, blockchain technology could also serve as a mainstay. As our parameters shift dramatically, blockchain can provide mechanisms that allow us to take affirmative steps forward with robust information as it is released from reliable health institutions.

Towards solving current problems, several blockchain use cases have high potential to bring forth paramount solutions in resolving crisis management issues, many of which have already been envisaged.

Reliable news updates and guidelines for effective crisis management

The pandemic has been the prevailing topic in the media for many weeks, with a wide range of content being pushed out across all channels from official guidelines and supporting stories to unreliable information, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and personal stories. Some want to take advantage of the situation and cyber police work has spiked across many countries.

In Turkey, great concern struck the country amid rumours and misleading comments across social media, around the cure or aversion of Covid-19. The General Directorate of Security scrutinised social media, deleting comments that incited dangerous behaviour, yet 20 people still died in Turkey as a consequence. Social platforms have responded, removing detrimental content and reserving space for public health organisations. 

A pandemic requires a globally distributed database that reliably captures new data from authorised health organisations and distributes it to anyone with access to the internet, as opposed to multiple regional and autonomic applications that lead to inaccurate or incomplete information. In order to ensure new data is reliable, we must be sure that the World Health Organization and governmental health institutions meet certain standards of trust. 

Effective crisis management happens when a quick and accurate response is enabled by sufficient reliable information, with both information overload and delayed response due to lack of information leading to undesirable outcomes. If reliable news were imminently and reliably published, crisis management could be coordinated across all levels of administration.

We have seen numerous examples where this did not happen. In Iran, ambiguous messages during the initial days of the outbreak had the mayor of Qom, the city with the majority of infections, requesting city closure to prevent spread at the same time as the director of the holy shrine in Qom was claiming that the sacred sanctuary was the best place to be cured, causing thousands of pilgrims to travel there and bring the virus back with them. In Spain, 120,000 people marched on Women’s Day in Madrid, despite virus upsurge across Italy and the first known cases spotted in Spain. In Mexico, during the Vive Latino celebration with 40,000 people, messaging assured the population that the global pandemic did not match the levels of emergency being announced. Key moments such as these have played a significant role in virus spread across the world, arising from equivocal government statements and an excess of incoherent media claims.

Real-time tracking and warnings of contagion probability based on individual health data

This idea has been shared by major blockchain consortia and countries like Singapore, China and South Korea. It consists of an application to allow users to evaluate contagion risk from people in proximity and promote measures of self-care. Personal identity and health data must be safeguarded from public access, and only the final “contagion rating” – based on user input – should be reflected to the public. The challenge here is how to ensure that virtual representation matches physical reality i.e. that correct data is inputted in the system and not forged. If there was a way to validate people’s input, the application would give users clarity of contagion hot spots and track the pandemic in unprecedented ways. It could even bring to light changes in contagion mechanisms or favoured environments (hot or cold), etc. through a new layer created by user data.

Clearly there are challenges with location and health profile data being owned by an institution or several organisations that own the platform. The breakthrough with blockchain is that the data is not owned by anyone, but pseudonymously or even anonymously shared within the network. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and other tech giants have merged with health organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) to create a pandemic outbreak traceability App called MiPasa built on Hyperledger Fabric technology. MiPasa is open-data, which does not mean open-source. Open data allows for the vast spread of and access to platform data, but without necessarily giving out the license to the public. This form of data acquisition is managed as a technocracy and based on reliable expert data. If anything, the difficulty lies in aligning stakeholders whilst letting them know that data would not be privately owned, but universally accessed instead.

Furthermore, this application would help with transition in the aftermath of the outbreak. The current economic hiatus and extended lock down is unrealistic and unsustainable for more than 2 months. By then, a lot of people will have already painfully endured the symptoms of Covid-19, whilst losing their jobs. Tracing measure that indicate which people have already been through the virus could support the gradual reinsertion of people back to daily life and free movement, without forgetting the lessons learned. Blockchain can serve as a great measure to track and trace people’s development in hospitals, probability of contagion and even reinfection rates. 

Blockchain for tracing available supplies and encouraging fair distribution of medical equipment

Blockchain is a well-known solution in the supply chain industry and has consequently led to spiking interest in tracing effective medical supplies and equipment required to manage the virus. Many countries are currently experiencing empty stockpiles of critical equipment in hospitals, health centres and retirement homes. If more pandemics are to come, there needs to be reliable tracing technology that helps ensure fair distribution of equipment, which will be inevitably dependent on a country’s purchasing power. Perhaps, a more socialised approach could even be put into place, with minimum quantity distribution based on basic medical requirements. The benefit of socialised access to quality medical treatment would result in an indirect benefit for all.

The Spanish government purchased 659,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests from a Chinese company called Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology Co., 58,000 of which arrived in Spain through a distributer called Interpharma, which remained undisclosed for a month. The tests were distributed to hospitals in Madrid, who later discovered that these tests had only a 20-30% accuracy rate. The Chinese Embassy in Spain confirmed that Shenzhen Bioesy Biotechnology does not have a sanitary licence and was not included on the long list of registered providers that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce offered Spain.

A blockchain database could help recognise registered manufacturing and distribution companies, standardise clinical test checks and register only those that show an effectiveness rate above a certain predefined threshold. The tracing from available stock, to additional effective production and shipping status and conditions, could be shared across multiple blockchain nodes under a cryptographically secure platform, whilst providing transparency and a unique source of truth. It could also be a reliable performance assessment tool and key to identifying risks.

Change of mindset and attitude: Crises as a turnaround?

The first waves of Covid-19 have passed in numerous countries, which does not mean that new cases will not arise throughout 2020 and onwards. Future global outbreaks will inevitably occur, whereby international expertise, common preventive measures and cooperative reactive actions will be needed for effective global crisis management. 

Crises have a tendency to become eccentric inflection points for humanity. Our path in history suddenly drastically changes and a new turn leads to new requirements, developments and discoveries. This outbreak highlights the need to implement mechanisms and now is the time to lay the groundwork for international cooperation. Blockchain is a key mechanism towards attempting to solve our shared universal challenge.

Authors

Joana Barragan

Energy Analyst, AFRY Management Consulting

Thomas Steinberger

Energy Analyst, AFRY Management Consulting

Joana Barragan is an energy engineer with an MSc in Engineering with Finance from UCL and an MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures from Imperial College London. Joana works at AFRY Management Consulting Madrid as an energy analyst, currently covering the Iberian gas and power markets.

Thomas Steinberger is an energy economist with focus on renewable energy and digital transformation. He has a MSc in electrical engineering from Technical University Vienna, which he finished with a master's thesis on facilitating cooperation between grid operators via blockchain in order to integrate distributed flexible assets into the power grid. Thomas is an Analyst at AFRY Management Consulting Austria aiming to break deadlocked structures in the energy system.