Austin Looks to Blockchain-Powered ID Management

For homeless individuals, a secure place to store identification is not always an option, so the city has turned to developing a secure, digital record.

by Daniel Fisher, Data-Smart City Solutions / September 13, 2018
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This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Many of the methods we use to identify ourselves are remarkably flimsy, the prime example being the Social Security Card: a small, easily smudged piece of cardboard (banknote paper if you were born after 1983) tucked away in filing cabinets and dresser drawers across the United States. Technically, the flimsiness is a design feature—according to the SSA, it makes tampering easier to detect, and laminating the card is prohibited for the same reason—but the design choice assumes that the holder has a safe, fixed place to keep it. This puts many people, particularly people experiencing homelessness, in a tricky spot: What do you do, for instance, if your only bag is stolen, or if your Social Security Card gets wet and falls apart?

The answer is as obvious as it is frustrating: reapply, reapply, reapply. For many people experiencing homelessness, this process of losing and reapplying for important documents becomes a damaging cycle, each iteration chipping away at their patience and trust for the very services that aim to help them.

The city of Austin, Texas, believes there is a better way. Over the past year, the MyPass Initiative—a partnership between the city of Austin, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, and Dell Medical School at the University of Texas—has been working to develop a blockchain-powered ID system for people experiencing homelessness. The Initiative is funded by a $100,000 grant from The Mayor’s Challenge, a competition sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies that awards grants to innovative cities, and the planned end-product is a platform that gathers digital copies of an individual’s records and IDs under one cellphone number or email address, rendering physical copies redundant.

According to Anjum Khurshid, the Director of Data Integration for Dell Med’s Department of Population Health, the idea came from similar programs implemented in refugee camps, such as World Food Programme Building Blocks in Jordan, which keeps family accounts on a “permissioned,” or private, variant of the Ethereum blockchain. Khurshid became interested in such use cases because the problems they addressed were analogous to one of the biggest in the world of population health infrastructure, namely the widespread fragmentation of health data. This fragmentation is exacerbated in the case of individuals who use emergency services frequently while lacking the IDs necessary for threading their history together—a common occurrence among the homeless population.

Blockchain technology offers a relatively simple and cost-effective solution to this problem. Instead of storing data across a number of individually-managed databases, all of a person’s interactions with different services could be recorded on a single ledger using a blockchain, with a validated body of agencies and individuals verifying each interaction as it occurs (e.g., the RMV verifies your driver’s license, your doctor verifies your list of prescriptions, etc.). Ultimately, control of the data would remain with the individual, who portions out access in a manner they deem appropriate—for example, allowing employment offices access to their work history, and so on.

Ironically, blockchain also presents some of the biggest stumbling blocks to MyPass’s implementation. The concept of blockchain is difficult to understand (partly because there is no agreed-upon definition) and is inextricably linked to the wild-west reputation of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. According to Kerry O’Connor, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, participants in a current pilot project are enthusiastic about digital alternatives to traditional forms of identification, but are hesitant about using blockchain itself. However, after some testing, members of the Initiative found that a simple metaphor involving a padlock and a notepad was enough of a foothold to facilitate an understanding of the technology and its potential benefits.

Another challenge that remains is similar to the one presented by physical documents: What do you do if you forget your password, or if you lose your phone? To answer this question, the MyPass Initiative held a service design week, in which designers were invited to consult with members of the homeless population, apparently to great success. “They started solving problems we didn’t think could be solved,” said O’Connor. One of the solutions they come up with was a mobile truck to provide storage and charging for phones.

And at the end of last month, the City of Austin and Dell Medical School held a hackathon weekend with members of the Austin blockchain community to tackle some of the challenges involved in the development of the actual MyPass platform. The hackathon had four goals, one of which was to demonstrate a minimum viable product that was capable of delivering a low-friction user experience, with particular emphasis put on “low friction.” To this end, participating teams tested their prototypes with members of the homeless community for usability, and both the first and second-place teams received particular commendation for their efforts to listen to feedback and insight from potential users.

All these user testing efforts hopefully compose the foundation for an ideal, seamless system, in which people walk into clinics and employment offices without any concern for missing paperwork or IDs. The problem with old forms of identity authentication is that they condition access to services on a person’s ability to keep track of an assortment of pieces of paper—a nettlesome task even for those with homes. This practice emerges out of good intentions—practical concerns like the prevention of identity theft and the verification of medical records—but at the end of the day, the lived experience of people experiencing homelessness is an endless parade of barriers and closing doors. MyPass offers a step in the right direction.