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After 10 Years Serving Ohio, Randy Cole Joins Blockchain Startup

The former executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission is joining a Cleveland blockchain company that wants to use the emerging technology to help government become more efficient.

Randy Cole, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission and a former honoree of Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers program, has left the public sector to join a company that plans on finding ways to use blockchain technology to serve government.

The move comes after an even decade of public-sector service. After spending 10 years in the private sector, Cole went to work for the state auditor in a technology role before becoming president of the Ohio Controlling Board. At the end of 2014, he took on the executive director position at the Turnpike, and sat on the advisory board of DriveOhio during his time there.

All the while, he brought a technology focus and an interest in how emerging technologies — autonomous and connected vehicles, smart sensors, blockchain, etc. — would impact the government and the people it serves.

“When I walked in as director [of the Ohio Turnpike] … we had heard of self-driving cars, we had heard of the 'Google car,' which is now Waymo, but over the four years … we transformed the way we looked at transportation,” he said.

That included 76 separate technology-focused initiatives to modernize the organization, including upgrading telecommunications and moving from a paper-based timekeeping system to a digital one.

And he started learning about a technology called blockchain. The idea first gained ground as the digital ledger system on which cryptocurrencies like bitcoin run, but before long, technologists and public leaders began describing it as a possible tool for business and government.

Cole is going all-in on that concept.

The startup he’s joining, Ownum, is based in Cleveland and is slightly mysterious. It’s about a year old, employs a team of about 15 people and it plans on using blockchain technology to make government more efficient, according to founder and chairman Bernie Moreno. Maybe it’ll serve business needs as well.

“Our first focus is on government; we think that’s where we think the low-hanging fruit is,” Moreno said.

Other than that, he and Cole declined to describe what Ownum has cooking, saying it’s too early in the company’s development for that. Moreno said he’s aiming to announce something more concrete in the spring.

To Cole, his new position will be all about helping government help people by working more efficiently and effectively.

“I’m very excited about working with a lot of people I’ve known in government over the years and look at the problems they have … and see if this technology is a fit,” he said.

He sees several possible areas where blockchain could help. The technology essentially acts as a digital ledger, typically copied and distributed across a network of computers, where transactions and information are recorded through mathematical proofs. The information can be encrypted — very important for a lot of data the government works with, such as Social Security numbers and home addresses — and uses its natural transparency as a ward against manipulation.

“Any place where value is being transferred or there’s an asset that’s being owned or transferred, those types of [activities] are really what blockchain is designed to do,” Cole said.

The kinds of record-keeping activities government is involved in — for example, birth and death certificates, vehicle titles and property deeds — are frequently cited as ripe targets for blockchain. Cole thinks that part of what makes the technology so appealing for those uses is its ability to plug into existing software. In government, often systems are unable to talk to each other because they were put in place by vendors using proprietary technology, or because old systems run on obsolete programming languages.

“[Blockchain is] an overlay technology that doesn’t have to replace existing enterprise systems,” he said.

So blockchain might be able to, for example, check multiple databases for records related to a person and look for inconsistencies. Then it could update those databases with the most recent and accurate information, preventing hangups and speeding up processes.

Right now, such ideas have had very little time in the sunlight, running in the complex world of day-to-day government operations. But a lot of people are trying to make it happen.

Count Cole among them.

“To me, working from the private sector, I could do more than I could in any individual government position,” he said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.