To judge from most of the hype, you'd think that blockchain technology was only about trading cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Of course, this distributed digital ledger which holds immutable, time-stamped transaction records, is at the core of such currencies. But there are many other uses for blockchain technology, from protecting an individual's digital identity to holding tamper-proof elections. A wide variety of startups and other organizations are sprouting up to experiment with such applications.
"Digital currency has been the first use of blockchain," says Perianne Boring, founder and president of the Chamber of Digital Commerce, a trade association for the blockchain industry. "But now we're finding more advanced applications for it."
One such use focuses on voting and polling. Take Cleveland-based startup Votem. Founded by serial entrepreneur Peter Martin, it uses blockchain technology to improve the voting process with a distributed ledger that can be audited at any point. That's especially useful for addressing fraud or tampering. The system integrates with state voting systems, allowing voters to cast their ballot from anywhere in the world.
"If you walk into most polling places today and fill out a ballot, you have no idea if your vote was actually counted," says Martin. "This is about creating an online voting system that can't be hacked and is completely verifiable by election officials."
So far, the system has largely been used for private elections, such as the 2017 election for president of the 20,000-member Ohio State Bar Association. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which in 2016 was the focus of a controversy when voting bots appeared to rig the induction election in favor of the band Chicago, used Votem last year for its vote.
Ultimately, Martin expects blockchain voting to become the norm. "We're in this for the long-term," he says.
Similarly, last year, ClearPoll, based in Perth, Australia, introduced a decentralized public opinion poll network. Votes are sent to the blockchain, where they're stored. Then poll results are displayed on an app, with charts and graphics showing real-time statistics. Users can vote on or create their own polls. For example, the company is setting up a poll for a group backing Scottish independence to get an accurate assessment of how the public feels about the issue.
"They want to work out what people really think," says ClearPoll co-founder Daniel Abela.
Another use is reducing the complexities of the healthcare system in the U.S. For example, pharmacist Michael Brunner co-founded Austin-based BlockMedx a year ago to address the opioid crisis. Opioid overdoses increased by roughly 30 percent in just 14 months between 2016 and 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With that in mind, the company is developing a secure blockchain system for transmitting prescriptions. The goal is to eliminate the forgeries, prescription shopping and duplicates enabled by paper versions.
"Blockchain allows us to create a traceable record of opioid prescriptions to see where they're coming from, who's writing them and what patients are picking them up," says Michael Brunner.
How does it work? A doctor transmits a prescription, along with medical history and patient details, to a pharmacy, which then accepts it. The system alerts the patient when the medication is ready. After that, the prescription is considered expired and is stored securely on the blockchain. Another benefit is that doctors will have access to a drug monitoring data base that can help them make informed decisions. In addition, patients can see their medical history and prescriptions on a mobile app, providing a way for them to manage their prescriptions more conveniently and encourage compliance with their doctor's orders.
The ultimate goal is to use machine learning and AI to analyze data, detect potential abuse and send out automated alerts for early intervention. Long-term, Brunner wants the system to become a prescription platform for other critical drugs.
In many cases, these applications make use of their own form of blockchain tokens, although the point is not to use it for currency trading. Tokens are virtual currency that represent an asset or utility issued by a party and reside on their own blockchains for later redemption.
Take BlockMedx. Patients can pay for their co-pays and for their prescriptions using either the company's token, called MDX, or regular money. If they choose, they can also share access to their prescription records with researchers and other companies and be compensated with MDX.
Civic Technologies is another example—it has a digital platform aimed at giving businesses and individuals the ability to provide consent for personally identified information to be shared by parties requesting that data. (Think a homeowner providing information to a bank for a loan). An app allows users to control their data, making it harder for hackers and others to gain access to their personal information.
"The mission of the company is to provide anyone on the planet a way to manage their digital identity through our app," says Chris Smith, vice president of business development.
But the goal is to create a marketplace that will allow individuals to verify their identity each time a new institution or service requires them to do so. And each transaction or service would be managed by a Civic token, helping to provide a record of what transpired at each step.
"We're connecting ID requesters to validators, thereby speeding up the process and giving the consumer more control over where their identity is being shared," says Smith.