Blockchain technology: A beginner's guide

At the Blockchain Applications and Economics Forum 2018, held from May 28 to 30 at the SMX Convention Center - Aura, I realized that while there was much excitement from blockchain and cryptocurrency enthusiasts over the potential of blockchain technology, it was difficult to distance the blockchain technology from the very concept that made it popular: Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrencies.

A member of the Philippine Digital Asset Exchange I spoke to at the forum's exhibition hall admitted usage cases of the blockchain in the country aside from cryptocurrencies wasn't really very entrenched in the Philippine community.

BLOCKCHAIN IN THE PHILIPPINES. The Blockchain Association of the Philippines wants to further the adoption of blockchain as a technology in the country. Photo by Victor Barreiro Jr/Rappler

BLOCKCHAIN IN THE PHILIPPINES. The Blockchain Association of the Philippines wants to further the adoption of blockchain as a technology in the country.

Photo by Victor Barreiro Jr/Rappler

Keynotes and panels tended to talk about adoption of the blockchain technology through cryptocurrency. (READ: Blockchain Association of the Philippines established)

"Crypto-curious" and "Crypto-serious" people were there, but much less was stated about what blockchain technology happened to be, nor what it could do in other areas, such as education or medicine.

Today's article hopes to remedy that somewhat, by trying to simplify blockchain technology as well as some of the best use cases for blockchain technology aside from cryptocurrency management.

What is blockchain technology?

A blockchain is what some might call or a digital ledger (more accurately a database) of information being passed around by users of the ledger.

A blockchain is a type of peer-to-peer technology in which users can send data to each other without the involvement of an intermediary. The ledger grows as more people and more transactions of data are done.

What's great about blockchain technology is its speed and security: the database or information ledger can't be fraudulently messed up, because all the users have a copy of the database.

How does a blockchain work?

Let's say you want to pay for something with money. Imagine blockchain as a ledger that records that transaction. You can't make a fake transaction because every transaction is recorded on that ledger, but everyone who pays for stuff with money has a copy of the ledger and can check if that transaction pushed through properly.

The blockchain is an ever-growing ledger of transactions. Assume, for example, that 10 transactions makes the ledger grow by a page. As new transactions happen and pages are made, more links are added to the blockchain.

Jumping off the ledger example a bit, we also have to recognize that it is more than a ledger, but also a complex bit of mathematical book-keeping, and someone needs to pay these book-keepers, which are generally called miners.

According to one guide to blockchain on Reddit, "Each block also contains a reference to the block that came immediately before it. It also contains a unique answer to a difficult mathematical puzzle. New blocks cannot be submitted to the network without the correct answer. Miners bulking the transactions into the blocks also compete to find the answer to solve the current block."

As a miner solves the answer to the currently existing block, that miner earns a fee for the computational work done – this is the incentive to continue to add transactions into the block to grow the blockchain.

As a result, multiple people are checking the blockchain trying to "mine" the transaction fee, which means there isn't a single authority checking the blockchain to make it secure – anyone who wants to mine the blockchain and check the work to try and earn money can do so.

Usage cases

While this explanation makes it easy to imagine its use when it comes to money and money-making, other cases can be made for the use of blockchain technology, of which I'll list some below.

When it comes to doing research, there's ARTiFACTS, a blockchain for academic and scientific research for storing your citations and allowing the research citation body to grow over time.

As ARTiFACTS states, it "provides a simple, user-friendly platform, purpose built for academic and scientific research that leverages blockchain technology. Researchers can record a permanent, valid, and immutable chain of records in real-time, from the earliest stages of research for all scientific and scholarly artifacts, including citing/attribution transactions."

Touching on healthcare now, there is another blockchain in the works called Gem, a startup working with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and European company Tieto to manage population health and disaster and disease outbreak response by allowing the data collection and analysis operations to be maintained through a blockchain. 

There's also SimplyVital Health, which has two blockchain projects. One is called ConnectingCare, which helps in tracking post-care after a hospital visit. The other, Health Nexus, is trying to set up a decentralized blockchain for patient records.

Interested in giving to a charity, but want to make sure your money actually goes to a good cause? Another blockchain initiative, BitGive's GiveTrack, is a Bitcoin and blockchain-powered charity organization that tracks donations and ties them directly to results using a blockchain ledger for accountability purposes.

Many forms of technology are ultimately influenced by the type of people who use them. Blockchain tech is no different, whether it's a cryptocurrency fan looking to speculate on a new initial coin offering, a researcher who wants to make sure his work is spotless, or a doctor who wants to improve people's lives.

I certainly hope the applications for the blockchain go beyond what's there on offer today. In the meantime, it's always fun to learn more about new technologies and wonder about how to best to use them. – Rappler.com

Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.

image