As bitcoin prices soared last year and cryptocurrency markets created new millionaires, a young man huddled under an Interstate 35 bridge in downtown Austin. It was an unseasonably cold night, and his asthma was flaring up. The day before, his backpack had been stolen — an all too common occurrence for someone living on the streets. In that backpack were his inhalers, as well as his ID and other important documents. The next day, he would have to start over — trudging across the city to get a new ID and re-register with various social service agencies.
Around the same time, another of Austin’s nearly 7,000 residents experiencing homelessness walked into a clinic. This middle-aged woman had just spent the past 10 days hospitalized after a complicated infection and kidney problems. Her doctors didn’t have access to her medical records, and she didn’t know the names of all her prescription medicines. She could tell the doctor was frustrated, and she was too. She was also scared about ending up back in the hospital.
Could the technology behind bitcoin — known as blockchain — help either of these people? A team including representatives from the City of Austin and Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin thinks so. Blockchain technology has the potential to help individuals manage their identities, regardless of whether a backpack gets stolen or a hospital faxed your records to your clinic.
Importantly, and a key reason why we at Dell Med are involved in this pilot project, it also has potential implications for developing new and better ways to securely share health information across multiple providers. In fact, blockchain technology is already being used in places like rural Indonesia and Syrian refugee camps to help people build a secure record of key life events such as birth registration, immunizations, health visits and housing records.
If blockchain can help coordinate health care and social services for displaced refugees across the world, why not apply it to help some of the most vulnerable members of our community here in Austin?
Last year, the team from Mayor Steve Adler’s office and Dell Med pitched an idea to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge: using blockchain to vouch for the identities of homeless people. Out of about 350 cities that applied, Austin was selected as one of 35 finalists, receiving seed funding to pilot our idea.
This innovative idea involves an equally innovative and novel partnership. Adler championed the idea with on-the-ground support from Austin Travis County EMS, technical assistance from Dell Med and input from individuals experiencing homelessness. The pilot is currently underway and getting local and national attention.
The pilot is testing how blockchain technology can help people experiencing homelessness to have access to their medical records and other important documents anywhere and at any time. It will also allow sharing of these records easily with someone they trust, such as a doctor or a public servant.
The technology creates an immutable, trustworthy and distributed system of data sharing while also allowing individuals to have full control over their digital information. The data would be available to an individual even if he or she moves to another city; all they need is a cellphone or email address to access the blockchain network.
Blockchain technology holds great promise in solving the issue of secure data sharing while also empowering individuals. The Austin blockchain project offers an opportunity to better understand how this technology can be applied to solve a pernicious problem in Austin and in cities across America.
In keeping with its character of a vibrant and entrepreneurial community, Austin has once again taken a lead in technology innovation. Blockchain – a technology first adopted by techies and financial wizards for floating new currencies – will now be used to benefit the most vulnerable in our community.
Anjum Khurshid is the director of data integration in the Department of Population Health at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.
Tim Mercer is the director of global health at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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