An Australian government agency given AU$700,000 (just shy of US$500,000 or £380,000) to research applications of the blockchain has delivered its answer: don't bother. Anything you want to do with blockchain, you can already do better with existing technology.
For every use of blockchain that you would consider today, there is a better technology...
The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), Australia's answer to Blighty's Government Digital Service, received the research windfall in the federal government's May budget, with a brief from ex-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to help, er, Dunning-Kruger Australia's government.
A squadron of thought-bubbles took flight. In May, DTA chief digital officer Peter Alexander told the Australian senate committee blockchain was under investigation by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (for corporate regulation); the Department of Home Affairs (tracking immigration records); and being looked at for Centrelink welfare payments. There were also mooted applications in cargo management, trade settlement, or to guarantee the provenance of open data.
Then came a push from vendors that makes living in a cave sound attractive. "I personally had 15 companies come to see me and talk to me about blockchain, the opportunities of blockchain and how it could solve every problem that we might have," he said (except, El Reg supposes, the problem of making the vendor presentations stop).
After toiling in the mine for six months trying to extract ore from endless "blockchain can do this" claims, Alexander yesterday morning reported back to the senate committee: it's not worth the effort.
"Our position today, and this is an early write-up, is that blockchain is an interesting technology that would be well worth being observed, but without standardisation and a lot more work, for every use of blockchain that you would consider today, there is a better technology," he said.
He added that "without standardisation, there is the challenge of blockchain becoming a little fragmented", and genuine opportunities to use the technology will have to wait until useful standards are in place.
Alexander pointed out that one of blockchain's big selling points, anonymity, isn't particularly useful in government-to-citizen dealings, which are more likely to need a trust relationship between known parties.
He also reiterated the relentless nature of the vendor push. "A lot of the big vendors are pushing blockchain very hard, and internationally most of the hype around blockchain is coming from vendors and companies, not from governments and users and deliverers of services."
The project that was to have been blockchain's proof-of-concept, for the Centrelink welfare payments system, is due to be in prototype next year. When first mooted, it got glowing reports like this one in The Conversation, but given Alexander's comments today, "dead parrot" may not be too harsh a description.
With its blockchain work completed, the DTA staff can now return to their more accustomed role of trying to oversee failing government IT projects. ®
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