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Save the World? Blockchain's Big Dreams Come Back to Earth in DC

“Who is actually getting results?”

Whispered between attendees in a crowd of 300 at the Blockchain for Social Impact conference in Washington D.C. on June 1, the statement summed up the sentiment at the event.

The group assembled at the U.S. Institute for Peace may have spanned from ethereum entrepreneurs to crypto-curious international development workers, but across that broad spectrum, the sentiment was shockingly cohesive: People want to see results, results, results.

Sandra Hart, Pacific cash and livelihoods advisor at the Oxfam, told CoinDesk:

“We need to stress-test blockchains in complex environments. It’s about being demand driven instead of supply driven.”

Gone are the days of excited chatter surrounding proof-of-concept presentations and lucrative token sales. Here to stay, it seems, is the idea the best way to get results is by engaging the people or communities the product or service is geared to help.

Hart, as an example, is working on a blockchain pilot in Vanuatu, one of the world’s most disaster-prone island nations. This program, which will run from around September 2018 to February 2019, leverages blockchain-linked IDs to deliver credit to up to 1,000 households displaced by a recent volcano.

Across the board, many attendees at the conference noticed the same challenges and opportunities that Hart faces as she sets up Oxfam’s humanitarian blockchain program. Namely, that blockchain solutions for disenfranchised populations work best when they are built cooperatively with recipients and community leaders to complement local habits and infrastructure.

Vanessa Grellet, executive director at the ethereum-centric startup conglomerate ConsenSys, agreed with Hart’s insistence on meeting people where they are.

“I’m the least bullish about projects that try to change behavior without economics,” Grellet told CoinDesk.

The statement spoke to her belief that technologists need to avoid preaching about wealth creation and instead listen to how people already use products or services instead.

In Hart’s case, Oxfam is working with the Vanuatu Society for People with Disabilities and Youth Challenge Vanuatu to make a smartphone application that represents fiat currencies, since the community is more familiar with mobile devices and cash than credit cards or tokens.

Hart was among many experts at the conference who urged blockchain enthusiasts to build applications alongside diverse communities, not for them.

Remember the real world

In short, Hart put forth another argument that say discussion at the event, whether tokens are necessary to engage broad communities of supporters. No matter how snazzy the product or service may be, she ultimate argues tokens might not incentivize people who weren’t already interested.

“It’s very common that usability is a question mark, based on the cultural context,” she said, adding:

“Beneficiaries or recipients are used to choosing what they buy instead of receiving in-kind assistance, which takes the dignity and choice out of the assistance process.”

Grellet agreed that two of the major challenges hindering blockchain projects is that many don’t understand the problem they are trying to solve or work with people who actually experience those pain points.

To make matters worse, few teams truly prioritize design, a key component of creating technology that people will actually use. On the other hand, some innovative projects fall short of tangible results because they shoot for the moon before gaining traction on the ground.

“There’s incremental change and there’s system change,” Grellet said. “What you propose is usually system change.”

Therein lies the same issue faced by activists across sectors: Bureaucracy is a slow and stubborn beast.

To counter these common pitfalls, Grellet advised blockchain enthusiasts plan baby steps that leverage existing user habits while working toward broader disruption. This approach can curb impulses to evangelize Western habits to cultural contexts where they don’t make sense.

“We’re not convinced we want to bank the unbanked,” Grellet said. “We don’t want them to go into a system that rejected them. We want to help create new systems and new creditworthiness, capacities, new ways for them to engage with new institutions that allow them to have access to funds.”

Although Grellet is inspired by startups that reduce friction and expenses for remittance, for example, she said those blockchain solutions leave the underlying problem intact.

“We want to solve the fact that they [remittance recipients] have less opportunities,” she said. “You can always reduce costs. But that’s sort of a band-aid.”

Plus, many of these communities don’t have the same connectivity as technologists enjoy in Silicon Valley or London.

“What do you do when you have to do things off the chain?” Hart asked, speaking to spotty electricity in some areas of Vanuatu. “How do we develop these products and say, you [developers] have to tweak this, change this, in order to make these products more adaptable and accessible when you work in humanitarian environments.”

Partners not users

The real trick is decentralizing access to resources.

To that end, startups like RightMesh, which raised $30 million in a token sale that concluded this week, are looking to put their tokens where their proverbial mouth is.

RightMesh’s blockchain product manager, Brianna MacNeil, told CoinDesk her startup already recruited roughly 100 developers in Bangladesh to build applications for the upcoming mesh network platform. Eventually, RightMesh users will be able to access the mesh network with their regular mobile devices, offering connectivity without WiFi.

This speaks to some of the infrastructure challenges Hart noticed as well.

“They are working on all kinds of open source apps,” MacNeil said. “We don’t know all the applications of mesh networking. So we want to put the tools in the hands of these developers so they can build new apps that may not have been possible otherwise, in part because of the lack of connectivity in some communities.”

This is what Gellet said she is most excited about in 2018, diversifying the open-source developer community.

“We’re going to really see internationalization, taking this really global and having local talent create the solutions. So that’s not just a U.S., Western conversation,” she said.

During a panel about refugee communities, Techfugee CEO Josephine Goube delivered a similar plea to the audience: “Please stop coming to me and asking me to build [apps].”

Instead, Goube clarified her startup offers resources and opportunities for displaced people to make their own tools. She warned against trying to make blockchain solutions for refugees, a population of roughly 65.6 million people worldwide according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Next, after empowering these communities, Gellet said the way to scale their local impact is to get enterprises and institutions on board at some level.

“What’s really key in this space is collaboration,” Gellet said. “We will not succeed without the collaboration of governments, charities, NGOs, enterprises, technologists, all together in the same room.”

And yet, for some international development experts, the questions remains: Why use a blockchain instead of a database?

Robert Opp, director of innovation and change management at the UN World Food Programme, addressed this conundrum during his talk about the ethereum pilot program distributing food to 10,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

“If we thought this was the endpoint in the World Food Programme, we would use a database,” he told the crowd about plans to expand the program to 500,000 people and corresponding identity tech tools, adding:

“This isn’t the endpoint. This is the beginning.”

Image of Blockchain for Social Impact via CoinDesk

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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The Use Cases and Applications for Involving Women in Blockchain

“Satoshi is female!”

That’s how New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney rallied the crowd on May 13 at the “Women on the Block” event in Brooklyn, New York, where more than 300 people came together to talk about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. The event comes at time of tension within the crypto community, as blockchain stars like Lightning Labs CEO Elizabeth Stark are urging interviewers to stop asking what it’s like to be a woman in crypto.

“Stop marginalizing and write about the awesome work that women are doing,” Stark tweeted in February.

But to the ladies at the event, it’s less about creating a divide and more about a welcome reprieve from the perennial challenge of being treated like a crypto unicorn, when they just want to discuss use cases and applications.

True to that, many of the day’s discussions focused on the business opportunities within the space, from using the technology to shine a light on the opaque real estate industry to utilizing blockchain for supply chain management within the food sector.

Nonetheless, the fact is that women are still underrepresented in positions of privilege and power across the board – and the blockchain industry is no exception.

Based on findings from an international Quartz survey of 378 venture-backed crypto and blockchain companies founded between January 2012 and January 2018, roughly 8.5 percent had a woman on the founding team, compared to 17.7 percent in the broader tech industry.

And according to many women at the event, this lack of gender parity could hold the nascent industry back significantly.

“Women have a better understanding and different priorities with this technology,” European Parliament member Eva Kaili from Greece told the crowd, adding:

“We believe, with these tools, you can have a strong influence on the future.”

A true need

Sure enough, women at the event, including German entrepreneur Masha McConaghy, co-founder of both BigchainDB and the Ocean Protocol, told CoinDesk that women could benefit from blockchain technology, perhaps, even more than men.

That’s because women still deal with issues surrounding financial access and empowerment – women make up the majority of the world’s poor, according to the World Bank – and a pseudonymous and censorship-resistant system could provide a solution.

For instance, in Saudi Arabia, women are still legally barred from receiving a business loan or license until two men testify of her behalf. And according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, at least 94 percent of women who experienced domestic abuse were also victims of economic abuse, where the abuser controlled her access to income or financial services.

McConaghy told CoinDesk, “We still don’t have it [freedom] yet, but we are moving towards it.”

Echoing that, Nigerian engineer Ese Mentie, who works with ConsenSys on the blockchain identity project uPort, told CoinDesk:

“There are still women whose husbands and fathers are controlling and they can’t access their own money.”

For her, inclusive corporate practices are the key to building effective blockchain solutions that take these different problems women deal with into account.

“If there is diversity, those conversations will happen,” she said.

And that could happen sooner than some expect. Kaili celebrated the fact that women are rising into leadership roles very quickly within the space, not just in terms of entrepreneurship, but also as it relates to legal research, diplomacy and open-source projects.

That makes sense, she continued, considering the cryptocurrency boom is popularizing conversations women have been having for years about financial access and control.

Focus on education

For many women at the event – who on Mother’s Day brought mothers, daughters and sisters – the key to getting more women in the space is education.

Education programs and data-sharing initiatives, like Women Who Code, were hot topics. And it was even proposed that the Women on the Block events should go on the road.

Speaking to this on a panel about investing in blockchain technology, Liz Rabban, vice president of business development at Celsius Network, a decentralized lending platform, said:

“The concept of decentralization and empowerment can only exist if we have education.”

And these statements about education generally garnered more applause than even Maloney’s opening statement about Satoshi [Nakamoto], the pseudonymous creator of bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that originally spurred all this excitement.

Still, Kaili was quick to note that the blockchain industry will only “duplicate the problems we already have” if leaders don’t prioritize gender parity.

But in knowing the struggles that women in the industry, and even more broadly, face, the tone of the day wasn’t discouraged. As a matter of fact, many of the women joked about the current perks of being a minority in the space – including the fact that there’s hardly ever a line for the women’s restroom.

Women on the Block organizer Alexandra Levin-Kramer promptly quipped:

“Not for long!”

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney at Women on the Block image via CoinDesk

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.