Texas: Bloomberg Funds Blockchain-based ID Development for Homeless

Austin, Texas has been granted up to $100,000 to create and implement an ID system based on the blockchain for the homeless people.

The City of Austin is among the 35 Champion Cities that participated and won acknowledgment during the 2018 US Mayors Challenge on February 21, 2018, as part of the Bloomberg American Cities Initiative sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The project of Austin is centered on the utilization of the blockchain technology to develop a system that keeps personal records and gives homeless people without IDs a unique identity so they can obtain vital services.

The City partnered with Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. It was a deal between the school’s Director of Data Integration Anjum Khurshid, MD, PhD and the City’s chief innovation officer Kerry O’Connor. They discussed how the Ethereum blockchain had been utilized to aid Syrian refugees. O’Connor believes that if the blockchain could work for refugees, it could also do the same for the homeless whom she thinks can be considered as “economic refugees.”

Displacement has been a significant issue in Austin. In 2017, the nonprofit data-driven organization working to end homelessness in Austin ECHO reported a consensus that the Austin/Travis county region sees over 7,000 individuals living on the street every year. Austin’s blockchain-powered ID system might help reduce those figures and enhance people’s lives.

O’Connor and Dr. Khurshid have been working together in partnership with the Austin mayor’s office as soon as the Mayoral Challenge came about. They aim to create and test an Ethereum-based system that would manage the identities of homeless people in the City.

The project is still in its early stages, and the efforts made were pre-pilot and preliminary according to O’Connor. “What we’ve received the grant money for is testing and learning and prototyping,” she said. Bloomberg maintains an active role in the process. It provides a coach for O’Connor’s offices to guide the development and testing phase.

O’Connor estimates around 60 organizations, divided between city departments and nonprofits, that work hand in hand to combat homelessness in the City of Austin. Training and education on the fundamental aspects of the technology are at the forefront of this effort. She stressed the importance of being on the same page for those organizations while implementing such a system. “We’re really excited by the promise of blockchain being distributed in order to make a more seamless experience across these organizations.” 

O’Connor shared that “As part of our innovation work we have an advisory committee of people experiencing homelessness here in Austin, so we’ll be designing this with them, not for them, making sure that this can fit their context.”

The initial stage of the project focuses on determining the necessary data to create a profile for those who seek it as well as the providers of care. The needs of the homeless often vary from those of the facilities they interact with. “People who are experiencing homelessness have their own needs, they don’t really care about our needs.” O’Connor thinks that such things might encompass “access to a birth certificate, or a social security number, or a rental history.”

The second phase will involve the testing of biometric systems which could function to identify a person’s identity without relying on a physical ID. O’Connor shared that Austin is open to exploring zero-knowledge proofs as a means to obfuscate private medical data from public-facing systems to maintain HIPAA compliance.

The Mayoral Challenge will see a $17.5 million investment in grants and technical assistance awarded to address significant nationwide issues. The 35 selected cities will undergo test phases for their projects and receive funding of up to $100,000 in the next six months. The progress of these projects will be assessed in August, and the four semi-finalist cities will be given an additional $1 million, while a single finalist will receive $5 million.

O’Connor expressed her optimism regarding the broader applications of a blockchain-based ID system that enables those in need to conveniently access a suite of services designed to put them back on their feet.