With beta testers in the private sector and interested parties in the southeastern United States, Public Bloc wants to encourage infrastructure spending by offering employee-level focus on project accountability.
When Public Bloc co-founder Hamzah ibn El-Amin decided the world could use a more detail-oriented piece of task management software, his trade firm was exploring infrastructure projects in West Africa. He had asked for documentation on how an offshore mooring facility had performed, and almost nothing was available.
“What we saw, dealing in that region, was a lack of security around data and financial transparency,” he said. “When we did a deeper dive, we found that that’s actually a problem worldwide, when it comes to development projects.”
Such was the impetus for Public Bloc, a Washington, D.C., software company El-Amin co-founded with Ali Akil, a tech executive and U.S. Army veteran he met at the DC Blockchain Center, in November 2017.
Public Bloc is beta testing one product, an eponymous software tool for scheduling, assigning and monitoring tasks on a project, reviewing and approving completed work, and tracking project finances from beginning to end on an immutable ledger, courtesy of blockchain technology. El-Amin said blockchain — particularly a centralized version of it called hyperledger fabric, which he said has never been hacked and allows the user greater control — makes it possible to create a secure record of who did what, when, where and how on an infrastructure project.
As an example of where that could come in handy, El-Amin mentioned the Florida International University pedestrian bridge in Miami that collapsed in March 2018, killing six people.
“If that contractor used our system, we would be able to pinpoint, almost immediately, who laid down that concrete barrier, who laid down those beams, what grade level of concrete they used, and if they were using the correct one,” he said. “If you have a contractor who does a task, the blockchain technology captures that and automatically syncs that with the contract that the contractor has, to show that this information and this task has been done, and it’s validated. So if there’s ever a dispute around liability, blockchain technology, since it’s immutable, allows … the government entity or developer to get to the bad actors regarding that project a lot easier.”
Besides audits or inspections after the fact, El-Amin said Public Bloc was also built to track fiscal objectives in real time, encouraging economic development by making projects less risky. He used the example of a transit center in Silver Spring, Md., that took 16 years to build and tripled in cost from its initial $40 million budget, in part due to lack of oversight, mismanagement and poor workmanship. El-Amin said Public Bloc aims to prevent such runaway expenses.
“Our system will be able to let the customer know who’s actually on the project, what task they’re performing at that time, and what has been done at the end of that day. Also, with that, any documentation that’s involved for that task is going to be uploaded, or have a picture (of it) in the system. We’re using blockchain technology to protect those documents,” he said. “It provides government entities and developers the ability to increase their quality assurance standards and their financial controls over their projects, essentially by automating workflows on the task level … If someone is off-budget or off-schedule, this will allow them to make quicker corrections.”
El-Amin said he looked at competitors such as Smartsheet, Procore and Microsoft Project, but he wanted to differentiate Public Bloc with a focus at the level of individual tasks, where production hiccups are most likely to occur.
“By having a project management tool that looks just at the phase, it might not give the day-to-day on how the task is performing,” he said. “If you really want to be cost-effective, you want that baseline at the miniscule task level, so you can fully understand how that phase is progressing.”
That level of detail actually dissuaded some potential customers in Africa, according to board adviser Robert Perry, who is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Central African Republic and current vice president of the Corporate Council on Africa. Perry told Government Technology this week that he hadn’t heard feedback on Public Bloc since its launch earlier this year, but he expected it will help governments make course corrections on wayward projects more quickly.
“You can track payment for goods and services, and use of goods and services, to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth and things are done on time,” he said. “Quite frankly, in some African countries, there is … a lack of interest in it, because when you don’t track money closely, you can take money off the table. So that’s an obstacle to what (El-Amin) is trying to do in African markets.”
El-Amin said Public Bloc is in talks with several municipalities in the southeastern United States and partnered with a few private companies: MultiPass Ventures, which is building a coworking space in Los Angeles, and Thorpe Development East. He said Public Bloc is retooling its software in light of some concerns among city officials that the degree of detail it records is too much.
“The beauty of us building it from scratch ourselves is that we can … tailor (the product) to what their specific needs may be,” he said. “We’ve had some talks with municipalities, and they really just don’t want to capture all that data, and it’s just specific things they want to capture around the tasks being done.”