The blockchain is one of the most intriguing technologies of 2016. It's the technology that powers Bitcoin, the distributed cryptocurrency. So what is blockchain? Simply put, it's a digital ledger of information. Bitcoin for example uses blockchain to record transactions. But Bitcoin is just one application for blockchain technology. The blockchain can be used in many other industries apart from finance. In this article, I'm going to look at two example applications. One is in the music industry, the other in healthcare.
The aspect of blockchain I find most compelling is that it will enable data owners to keep track of their data - who's using it and when. In other words, blockchain will be a key part of rights management going forward. This is great news for creatives (photographers, writers, musicians, artists and others), because blockchain will give them a means to make money without relying so much on intermediaries. I'll explain how that works below. Even more importantly, blockchain can give everyone access to data that would otherwise be difficult to obtain and/or manage. The classic example is our health data.
Imogen Heap is a British singer and songwriter who wants to build a "fair trade" music industry, using blockchain. She's created a non-profit foundation called Mycelia to further these aims. The first Mycelia project was the release of a single, called “Tiny Human,” on a blockchain enabled site called Ujo Music. The song cost $0.60, for which you got a digital file of the song plus its key, tempo and "stems" (individual components, such as the vocal track or the synth part). You also got all this:
You can explore the Tiny Human network, examine the policies associated with the track, see how payments are automatically distributed to the different contributors to the song and – if you have the cryptocurrency Ether – buy a download of the song and have your transaction recorded permanently on the blockchain.
Alas the song is no longer available on Ujo Music ("Purchasing is disabled for now, sorry."), however you can still get it from Imogen Heap's website - for free or by donation. It's clear this was just an experiment for Imogen Heap, but hopefully it's just the beginning. While the user experience was a little kludgy, it did prove that you could store a whole lot of information - not just the purchase details, but various music files and policies around its use - on the blockchain.
Another blockchain initiative is YouBase, recently pitched to me by one of the founders as "a blockchain-based layer for health data that puts the individual in control of their health information." Putting the individual in control was the theme of my 2014 book Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health, so naturally I'm very interested in what YouBase is attempting.
YouBase is a brand new company and is still working on its messaging. It describes itself as "an open source protocol that solves key problems currently plaguing the data world, in particular the health data world: security, authenticity, share-ability." It's unclear what YouBase will provide for consumers, but the white paper hints at something akin to a Bitcoin Wallet. Just as you store your Bitcoin in a secure digital wallet, presumably you'll be able to store your personal health data in a YouBase wallet and allow health organisations to access it as necessary.
What YouBase is attempting is ambitious and potentially fraught with problems, since healthcare data is currently siloed (meaning not easily shared between organisations) and the individual can barely access it - let alone own it. Using myself as an example: I'm a type 1 diabetic and every year I do a bunch of blood tests, to check how I'm managing my blood sugar levels. The results of my blood tests are sent from the lab to my doctor, but at no point do I get an electronic copy. My doctor is kind enough to give me a printout of the results, which I then scan and store in my Evernote. But this is a bespoke, unsatisfactory solution. It would be much better, for all concerned, if there was one central repository of my blood test results - and since it's my data, I should be able to control who has access to it. That seems to be what YouBase is trying to build, using blockchain as one part of the system. Early days yet, but good luck to them!
Party Like It's 1993
You can see from the above two examples that the blockchain is a very promising technology, but that we're in the early, geeky and experimental stages. Some are even comparing it to the Internet in 1993: "a decade from now, you’ll wonder how society ever functioned without it." Certainly if in a decade we have a system that manages rights for creative people (and pays them!) without intermediaries like record labels and Spotify controlling that data, then we will look back on our current system of rights management as antiquated and broken. Likewise if control of healthcare data is given back to its true owner: the individual. We'll have to wait and see if blockchain can deliver on this promise, but I love what Imogen Heap and YouBase are attempting to build using this technology.
A final note: blockchain kind of reminds me of a forerunner of the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson's Xanadu system. Nelson wanted links on the Internet to connect back to their source; meaning the owner or originator of the data. The idea was that this would enable rights management and potentially micropayments. An example: your account would be debited one cent every time you listen to an Imogen Heap song, no matter where you accessed it from. Unfortunately Nelson couldn't build a functional system until the late 90s, so it was never a serious competitor to the much simpler World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee created.
The blockchain is about much more than smarter links though. It's also a way to assign value, verify transactions, establish trust, share information with permissions, and more. It's complex and we're only at the 1993 stage of building it out. But I like that we're finally getting to a point on the Internet where rights holders can own and control the data they produce.