Oflate there has been a lot of interest in Blockchain technology and many researchers are looking at ways in which Blockchain can be used in geospatial systems. This is expected because geospatial systems have made very good use of computing technology right from databases to networks and the Cloud. Geospatial technology is increasingly becoming embedded in other systems like BIM, BI, BPE and so forth. Therefore, it is only some time before it embraces Blockchain technology.
The Chain in Blockchain is the chain of transactions in the form of ledger entries about assets which could be money, imagery, data, maps, documents, etc. In reality what is actually transacted are tokens containing the metadata of the assets. The actual physical transfer happens separately. Block refers to the grouping of transactions related to each other. A way of looking at a Blockchain is to consider it as a ledger where all transactions are entered. So in what way is a Blockchain different from a database?
Difference between Blockchain and database
Blockchains are open to all members, therefore the ledger of transactions are available to all members. There are no centralised administrators as it is a peer-to-peer network. Every transaction entered in the Blockchain is verified and approved by consensus among the members. However, there are validators called ‘miners’ who can review the transactions and validate them. The two key characteristics of Blockchains are trust and immutability. Just like in business where transactions are based on trust so also the members operate on trust. Immutability is ensured by the prevention of a record of a transaction being modified or deleted. When a member makes a transaction it is date and time stamped and is accompanied by a key generated by the computer using the members private key.
Every subsequent transaction is similarly stamped and a new key is generated which includes the earlier key. Thus any attempt to hack will require to unravel the transactions key by key which will be an impossible task. Assuming that even that happens, the hacked ledger will differ from the other copies and after a process of consensus, will be removed and replaced by the consensus copy. What happens if the change is genuine? Well, there is a possibility of ‘forking’ and the temporary creation of two networks from one. A fork can happen in two ways; if two miners find a new block at nearly the same time or if there is a change in the rules of validating a block. A soft fork happens if the new rules are backward compatible. A hard fork happens if a new software is introduced that is not compatible with the earlier software. A third fork called a User Activated Soft Fork, UASF is a controversial one because it means that software upgrades are initiated by the users and not the original developers. Reconciliation can take place, in time, in all cases.
When to use a Blockchain?
It needs to be understood that a ledger is essentially a database of transactions. A Blockchain makes sense if the ledger is shared and the entry of transactions can be made by a multiplicity of persons who may not be known to each other and therefore there is no inherent trust between them. The accepted solution in such a situation is to route such transactions through a trusted intermediary known to each person, but this adds to the cost and processing time. In a Blockchain such an intermediary is replaced by a peer to peer network in which authorization and validity of transactions is achieved through a process on consensus among the members. Therefore, a multi organizational network that needs to work without intermediation, where the members do not know each other sufficiently to be able to assign trust a priori and yet the network requires openness and is not performance driven, then it would be an ideal candidate for Blockchain implementation. However, if there is a need for central control, confidentiality, fast performance and high scalability then it might make sense to go for a normal distributed database.
Private versus public Blockchains
There are two types of Blockchain, Public and Private. The most visible implementation of a Public Blockchain is the Bitcoin network. Here a potential member has to open a wallet to which the system assigns a private key. The member can now transact with others on the network, paying by Bitcoins for goods, services, data, documents, etc. We may soon see banks going the Blockchain way, not immediately but not in a very distant future either. Another use of Blockchain is the tracking of diamond trading where it is used to record transactions, act as a notary and store personal data.
The Public Blockchain has two drawbacks. The first is the validation process which can take time as there are many users. The second is the block size which cannot be too big, hence only the transaction details can be carried and not the object of the transaction, for example documents. On the other hand, Private Blockchains can be created and run by institutions like government departments, industries and companies, may be NGOs. Private Blockchain avoids these problems by restricting the number of users. A membership to a Private Blockchain is by invitation. Though others may be able to see the transactions they cannot participate in them. The rules governing the Private Blockchain can be changed easily by the administrators and backtracking of transactions may be allowed by them. The validators (miners in Public Blockchains) are trusted by the institution. Transaction costs are lower than in Public Blockchains and malfunctioning nodes can be quickly spotted and repaired.
Broadening horizon in geospatial
In geospatial terms two domains which attract Blockchain implementation are land transactions and data repositories. In the case of land records there is no established trust between the participants and there is a need for openness. The weakest link, the mediator in the form of the record officer (talati in India), can be eliminated, preventing spurious transactions by immediately trapping and replacing it with the consensus copy. In an ORF Occasional Paper on “Securing Property Rights in India through Distributed Ledger Technology”, Meghna Bal has covered these aspects extensively. According to her, Estonia, Honduras, Georgia, Ghana and Sweden are looking into Blockchain-based land registry systems, and of these Sweden is well advanced with a Pilot Project.
Quoting from the paper, “Understanding the need for change”, the Lantmateriet (the Swedish Mapping, Cadastre and Land Registration Authority) collaborated with Kairos Future (a consultancy), the Telia Company (Sweden’s dominant tele-network operator), and Chroma Way (a Blockchain solutions firm) to develop an innovative way to address the issues plaguing the current land registry framework. They devised a plan to create an application that would use Blockchain technology to facilitate transactions. Communication between the various stakeholders (real estate agent, bank, buyer, seller, and the Lantmateriet) is conducted over the application. All information about the property (current owner, cadastral surveys, among others) is digitised and put into the Blockchain. Smart contracts then ensure that this digitized space is regulated by certain rules (i.e., Sweden’s regulatory policies). The application is then used as an interface to facilitate all transactions concerning a particular property. The purchase agreement is distilled down to a unique hash code and put into the Blockchain. Banks, real estate agents, buyers and the Lantmateriet can substantiate the veracity of this purchase agreement and other documents through their unique digital signature (hash on the Blockchain). Banks can also ensure that the buyer has enough funds in their account to carry out the transaction. The Lantmateriet can then register and grant title to the buyer”.
However, the author points out that in India, in spite of efforts of the Digital India Land Records Management Programme, land deals are fraught with errors and inconsistencies. While geospatial technologies have had a huge impact on the digitisation of spatial land records, the transaction data related to these records tends to lose synchronism as it is maintained in different databases. Typically, the 7/12 land records lie with the Revenue Department of the state, while the registration records are with the Department of Stamps and Registration, and spatial data are maintained by the Land Records Department.
The author outlines three important steps before the situation can be remedied. First, bring all the departments under a digitally secure environment through Public Key Interface. Second, evolve a protocol that links the buyer to the seller, the property, the payment, the bank, the smart contract, and the registry. Third, use suitably enhanced smartphones that can deal with digital signatures, PKI and phone to phone interaction through some form of authentication like the Aadhaar number. All this can operate in the framework of a Blockchain. Should it be Public or Private is a question not yet answered.
May be the answer lies in another implementation of Blockchain for land records management in Georgia. Here, a private Blockchain requiring access permissions has been integrated with the Georgian National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR). This is anchored to the Bitcoin Blockchain through a distributed digital time-stamping service. Distributed digital time-stamping allows NAPR to verify and sign a document containing a citizen’s essential information and proof of ownership of property. The Republic of Georgia’s recently implemented land titling system based on Blockchain technology has recorded over 100,000 title transactions within the first two months of its launch. This is an example of a hybrid implementation which protects the basic data while allowing anybody to view the data using the immutability and openness of the public Blockchain network.
Blockchain’s big scope in IoTs
Another major area where Blockchain can be used effectively along with geospatial technologies is Internet of Things. Today, IoT conjures up a mental image of a complex network of humans and objects all passing data to each other. The questions are what data, how is it validated, how are things and humans protected from illegal access and processes? For example, could an autonomous delivery van, which depends on sensors be hijacked and driven to a wrong location? Consider the data carrying the instructions as transactions. If the network is on a Blockchain then the process of consensus would help validate the transactions and weed out the wrong instructions because the illegal transactions would be trapped. According to Alan Morrision, senior research fellow at PwC’s Center for Technology and Innovation, “Blockchain and smart contracts could be the bones of a governed, transactional internet where machines abide by rules and algorithms provide the kinds of validation normally associated with a human third party. Business process management (BPM) could run each entity’s internal process and act as the connective tissue on one side of the transaction or the other. Smart contracts would extend the capabilities of BPM beyond the four walls of an organisation, acting as mediator between two entities”.
Geospatial bond with Blockchain
A very interesting development which ties together geospatial and Blockchain is FOAM, developed by Kristoffer Joseffson, Ekaterina Zavyalova and Ryan John King of Ethereum. FOAM is an open protocol for geospatial data markets on the Ethereum blockchain. Foam associates Blockchain ‘coordinates’ with each position location. These Crypto-Spatial Coordinates enables a vertical Z axis, which is the Blockchain token balance of the address and the stack of smart contracts that reference the address of the physical address. The Crypto-spatial layer contains the geospatial position location and the Spatial Wallet in that location. These Spatial Wallets are created using Native FOAM Tokens which also create space tokens. Space tokens create derivative utility tokens with unique coordinate addresses. How does this work?
Consider the IoT as an example. Imagine a traveller on a public transport system using a smart mobile containing space tokens. As the person boards a bus the crypto-spatial layer notes the point of embarkation and the point of disembarkation and automatically charges the fare from the spatial wallet of the traveller and credits it to the spatial wallet of the transport utility company. There is no need for cards to swipe or to recharge cards. The debits and credits are instantaneous and the transaction is automatically reconciled on the blockchain.
Movement of goods, transhipment can be traced and delivery costs calculated and debited automatically. Augmented Reality systems could be used for determining progress of work and authorising scheduled payments for major construction projects using smart contracts.
Perhaps the greatest application of interest is to data generators who could deposit data into a crypto spatial coordinate, back it with space tokens, and set pricing mechanisms for its use. Data could include satellite data, maps, land parcel data, 3D visualisation data, BIM and much more. Thus one could see a paradigm change in the way spatial data from satellites, UAVs and even in situ measurements from sensor networks could be easily monetised and distributed. Data security could be built in through the space tokens.
Blockchains are evolving and it would be wise for the geospatial world to keep abreast of the technology, try out pilot applications and thus get in at the ground floor of what today appears to be a future game changer.