Trace, Target and Address
The outbreak of COVID-19 changed a lot of things across the world as every nation / organization came up with their own plan of fighting this pandemic. Travel came to a grinding halt, borders closed and ‘social distancing’ became the new normal. People were advised to stay at home and avoid contact with others to curtail spread of the novel coronavirus. Considering the transmission mechanism and inherent ‘secret’ trait of this virus to latch on to its victims, it became paramount to keep everyone informed in a timely manner about:
- epicenters / areas with maximum concentration of cases
- number of cases in their region including active, cured and fatal ones
- whether they came in contact with someone who was infected
Contact tracing is ofttimes done in a reactive manner. When someone is diagnosed positive, an attempt is made to identify all places and people they have interacted with while carrying the virus. Information provided by the infected persons and backtracking data such as travel details, credit card usage, mobile phone location history, etc. are some methods used to trace their footprint.
Some countries have tried to automate this process through AI and surveillance. In China, each train seat is linked to the passenger’s national identification number which helps in identifying everyone else who was in the same coach. Per Business Insider, Singapore has rolled out a mobile app to track users’ proximity and alerting those who come in contact with someone who has tested positive. Although these tech savvy methods sound great, their efficacy is bound by a couple of limitations:
- restricted to one system or a few other integrated systems
- requires very powerful data processing and artificial intelligence capabilities
Let’s discuss how blockchain could be potentially used to facilitate vital information needed not just to track the virus spread, but also in efforts to control it. Also, let’s try to analyze how blockchains seamlessly dovetailed with routine processes can support this cause without being jostled by system / software centric constraints.
Role of Blockchain
When blockchain was invented, its application was predominantly in the financial sector. In fact, even today that is the most common area of its usage. However, since its inception, blockchain has extended beyond financial transactions and is now disrupting other processes such as supply chain, music distribution, voting, telecom, healthcare, etc. In their latest report, Fortune Business Insights quoted, “The global blockchain technology market size was at USD 1,640.7 Million in 2017 and is projected to reach USD 21,070.2 Million by the end of 2025, exhibiting a CAGR (Compound Aggregate Growth Rate) of 38.4%”. So, can blockchain technology go beyond supporting business transactions and be leveraged to deal with a pandemic? In my opinion, the answer is yes.
In this proposed model, major systems for travel, retail, medical, etc. need to be based on their individual blockchains. Each transaction made in such a system by anyone would be processed through a distributed decentralized ledger. This is not an entirely postulated concept. Some companies are already adopting it.
- The Independent UK published an article stating that, in July 2018, Singapore Airlines became the first company to rollout a blockchain based loyalty program that allows members to use miles earned towards purchases at other non-travel partners and vice-versa
- Starbucks also runs its loyalty program on blockchain
- Crypto industry news website, CoinTelegraph reported that American Express has filed a patent for blockchain powered proof-of-payment system which covers various points of sale such as hotel reservations, restaurant bills and event tickets
In each of these three blockchains, transactions processed hold encrypted information about both, the merchants and consumers across its network including the timestamp and location. In the event of a pandemic, this information can well be utilized in efforts to deal with the same. Even if there are a handful of such blockchains in action, imagine how resourceful those would be to trace and draw someone’s footprint. One doesn’t have to dig through a plethora of systems or rely on people’s memory to locate the virus network they would have inadvertently created. Since information would be residing in a common ledger, it could be backtracked all the way to the original source and all the way forward to the final destination and everything in between. Besides, everyone else using the same blockchain could be easily identified through their transactions based on overlap with others (time and place). One might ponder that data security could be a matter of concern here due to risk of exposing data to everyone. But with secured blockchains, this can be systematically managed by means of tighter access control measures. We’ll talk about this in more depth in the next section. Apart from enabling traceability, blockchain based systems can be extended to improve the global supply chain of critical products (for example, N95 masks and ventilators).
During a pandemic, speed and accuracy of information is of the essence and blockchain will facilitate this. Here are a couple of potential scenarios:
- A virus map can be chalked out in ‘near real time’ by drawing information from multiple process touchpoints within the blockchain. This would give authorities additional time to respond by cutting down on upfront tracing effort
- Medical experts can access data about the virus’ behavior across demographics to collaborate and analyze a superset of conditions and formulate an effective vaccine for all cohorts
Information from multiple blockchains can be coherently analyzed together. For example, medical records from a healthcare blockchain clubbed with travel information from a transportation system blockchain. Moreover, such information analysis can be system / application / geography agnostic as long as it is rendered based on the common principles and architecture of blockchain. Efforts have already begun to redirect blockchain mining bandwidth to help the fight against COVID-19. According to an article published by CoinDesk (a news site specializing in bitcoin and digital currencies), “CoreWeave, the largest U.S. miner on the Ethereum blockchain, is redirecting the processing power of 6000 specialized computer chips toward research to find a remedy for the coronavirus”. As more supercomputers like this join forces, the collective capability will grow multi-fold and could be channelized for analyzing large data sets in blockchains for a unified cause – defeating the pandemic!
Data Security and Interoperability
Every blockchain being considered here will be private and permissioned. Moreover, blockchain in general deploys über levels of encryption and security. It is possible to create access layers and safeguard against improper data usage. Blockchains operate on DLT (distributed ledger technology) which makes the data it holds immutable. This architecture leaves no room for vulnerability and makes blockchains virtually impenetrable by hackers. For the blockchains being discussed here, additionally security could be introduced through identity keys, certificates, privileged access management, etc.
It is evident that a lot of person specific information will be shared and analyzed with this approach. In certain cases, there are laws governing how sensitive data should be processed. For example, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) that was implemented Europe-wide in 2018. Technically, a blockchain can be made compliant with these standards, but fundamentally, owners of blockchains involved in this model will have to sign corresponding agreements to incorporate such regulations into their security framework.
Once we are past the hurdles of security and compliance, the next aspect to be contemplated is data sharing. A single blockchain may not hold all the information needed to devise an action plan during a pandemic. This is where blockchain interoperability comes into play. This implies the ability to access information across blockchains without any special provisions. What and how much data can be accessed is controlled by the contract between blockchain partners. As quoted in an article on Yahoo Finance, “Interoperability is one of the most important steps in blockchain’s mass adoption and evolution”. This viewpoint was originally focused on blockchain partners to mutually benefit purely from a business perspective. But thinking holistically, role of interoperability is way larger than just to achieve business benefits. It facilitates data sharing for the collective good of the society (for example, fighting against a pandemic). Some organizations have started steering along this course.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official website of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) has published a Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap. This talks about a framework for securely handling sensitive healthcare data through a shared but encrypted IT ecosystem (such as blockchain)
- The Government of India shared a circular announcing that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) is planning to create a National Level Blockchain Framework. It is also sponsoring a major project being co-executed by national technology organizations and one of India’s leading engineering institute, VJTI to develop a Distributed Centre of Excellence in Blockchain
Such blockchains spanning processes and information across demographics at a national level would have more stringent requirements when it comes to data sharing and interoperability. Organizations who are already ahead in the game of blockchain revolution should incorporate such capabilities in development standards of future blockchains. A parameter (say, scalability or interoperability index during nationwide disaster situations) could be added in the quality assurance metrics of blockchains.
During and Beyond the Pandemic
So far in this article we have talked about how blockchain can prove extremely useful in efforts to deal with a pandemic. But the same approach can be extended beyond it as well. Research and analysis activities that were initiated will continue even after the pandemic ends:
- Doctors will study mutation patterns of similar viruses and immunity system responses
- Medical companies will progress research to develop more effective vaccines / medicines
- Governments will monitor pattern and volumes of international passenger traffic
- Companies will conduct studies to devise plans to be future-proof against pandemics
The Wall Street Journal’s Emerging Technologies section recently covered this topic stating how leading technology companies are venturing to a variety of blockchain projects ranging from medical equipment supply chain to people’s immunity validation. One such example quoted is IBM’s Rapid Supplier Connect system targeted at connecting healthcare providers with suppliers who generally don’t manufacture medical equipment but plan to produce it by utilizing their available infrastructure. Another example provided is of a project at Ernst & Young aimed at developing a blockchain to track people based on their test results and immunity scores.
All of this analysis profusely relies on data and its linkage. Therefore, role of blockchain will be far from over even after the world emerges on other side of the pandemic. Data collected through blockchains and used effectively to find solutions will continue to be captured as people carry on with their normal lives. Transactions from ubiquitous touchpoints in travel, dining, events, healthcare, everyday purchases, etc. will be processed through blockchains. This will present crucial information for surviving in the post-pandemic era and be better equipped in years to follow.
Challenges / Considerations
Let’s evaluate some of the potential challenges for this solution to be deployed in a full-blown manner and considerations to overcome these in the long run:
- Cost of transactions and storage – Enormous amounts of data will be processed within individual large scale blockchains and a considerable proportion of it will have to be shared. There is a cost associated with both, processing these large number of transactions as well storing the huge data. This has to be budgeted for and the associated costs must be optimized.
- Unified data modeling – Since data will be churned from different blockchains across functions, data and process standardization is crucial. A unified data model needs to be adopted to facilitate analysis of such interoperable data. Interoperability alliances between partners can help drive this and the next point.
- Trust amongst partners – Each partner hosting their blockchain will collaborate with others for data sharing. Therefore, there needs to be an element of trust and agreement between partners to ensure the rightful application of data and to prevent misuse.
- Infrastructure – Handling large volumes of data calls for systems that are capable of supporting it. Although blockchains bestride on a shared network instead of a single server, the components of such server network also have to be potent enough.
- Internet penetration – The entire premise of blockchain is buoyed on internet. One cannot perform a blockchain based transaction unless they are online. So, the depth of internet penetration and magnitude of connectivity plays a pivotal role here.
- Hosted v/s Cloud based blockchains – Hosted blockchains might turn out to be challenging and expensive to maintain in this approach. Therefore, the availability of more and more ‘Blockchain as a Service’ (Baas) providers will make this less elusive.
The primary purpose of this article is to bring in less thought of perspective about blockchain usage. When someone talks about blockchain, the first thing that comes to our mind is a ‘transaction’ being processed through connected blocks in a distributed ledger, and the second thing of course, is ‘cryptocurrency’. The way COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, it left many of us in a deer in the headlights like situation. This probed me to pen down a point of view about how one of the most cutting-edge technologies of current times can be leveraged to improve response to a situation like this.
There is still a long journey ahead to implement this across the board. It calls for a lot of groundwork, development and standardization. But looking at the inexorable advancement of blockchain technology, I strongly feel this model will be adopted universally in the near future. ‘Tech for humanity’ is a trend that is being embraced by many universities and companies and this makes a perfect use-case. As reported by Forbes magazine, this was a big theme coming out of the World Government Summit in Dubai in 2018. Blockchain should and will be perceived as more than just business centric. The possibilities are endless.
Thank you for your time in reading this article! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them here or write to me at Manish_Naik@infosys.com. Please take care and stay safe!
“It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
I would like to thank Mr. Srikanth Sripathi and Dr. Arnab Banerjee for doing a detailed review of this article and providing valuable feedback to enhance the content.