Blockchain. Identification. And Library Cards?

Blockchain continues to be a bit of a mystery (part of why I’m excited for the Library 2.018 - Blockchain Applied: Impact on the Information Profession event on June 7th), but several pieces of news have piqued my interest and helped me to think about how blockchain might intersect with some of the most essential pieces of library work.

One recent announcement had me thinking about library cards. Among the 35 city projects selected as “Champion Cities” in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Initiative was a proposal from the city of Austin to pilot a new blockchain platform to improve identity services for its homeless population. Austin’s proposal received $100,000 in February to prototype and refine the idea as it continues in the American Cities Initiative competition.

Austin’s project seeks to provide those experiencing homelessness with a simplified way of keeping their personal information with them. For marginalized populations, the risk of losing their possessions or documentation can make identification a particularly important issue. As reported in TechCrunch (“Austin is piloting blockchain to improve homeless services”), Sly Majid, Chief Services Officer for Austin, said, “If you have your backpack stolen or if your social security card gets wet and falls apart, or if you are camping and the city cleans up the site and takes your possessions, you have to start all over from the beginning again.” Without those important forms of identification, people experiencing homelessness could lose access to services that would be helpful to them during this vulnerable time. Austin’s project would use blockchain to improve the city’s ability to verify the identity of a person, integrate information about the various services that person has accessed, and empower the individual to “own” their own identity record.    

This approach is similar to Blockchain for Change’s pilot project in New York City, where people experiencing homelessness will receive a free smartphone with the Fummi app, designed to help users manage their digital identity, access shelters and food pantries, and make use of financial services (Fast Company “This New Blockchain Project Gives Homeless New Yorkers A Digital Identity”). Partners in the project help create blockchain-supported identities for the participants. Those authenticated identities can make it easier for individuals to access financial services, government programs, and nonprofit services. Identity is securely and permanently stored via the blockchain, so there can be a continuity of service even as a person’s circumstances change.

For people experiencing homelessness and poverty, the library can be an important space from which they access social services, seek housing and employment, or access technology and collections. Some of those services may depend on access to a library card that may or may not be contingent on proof of residency or some other identification. If projects like Austin’s and New York City’s continue, libraries could encounter new blockchain-enabled forms of identification. As these projects work to integrate various social services that help residents move from homelessness to more stable conditions, a library’s participation could further demonstrate the vital role our services play in improving people’s lives.  

How are you thinking about blockchain? And what might be its intersections with our library work?