Bounties For The Oceans: Incentives to Change the World
On December 1st and 2nd, Bounties Network, ConsenSys Social Impact, and Coins.ph came together for an event with one goal: to test how incentives could catalyze grass-roots environmental impact.
Our main intention with the BFTO bounty-based cleanup in Manila Bay was to test out how we could re-engineer the flow of money and its distribution patterns by actively involving local communities through cryptocurrency based incentives. We believed this new mechanism could also help create new means of rewarding individuals for positive action while vastly reducing the burdensome administrative costs afflicting most charity models today.
As anyone who attended the cleanup can attest, the atmosphere across the two days was nothing short of electrifying. We witnessed this convergence of two groups, who were simultaneously both teaching and learning from each other. On one hand we had locals, most of whom had never even heard of cryptocurrencies before, who were curious about the potential benefits that blockchains could provide them. On the other, we had technologists who were keen to understand the real challenges they’d face in on-boarding the general public to these nascent systems.
From the very first stages of planning, we knew we had a long list of questions to answer:
- How many people would be interested in picking up the trash that floated into Manila Bay?
- How many of them would know what cryptocurrencies were, or how to use them?
- How many of them would even have smartphones with stable internet access?
Regardless of the hurdles they faced, we encountered participants who were delighted that people around the world had donated funds just to help them clean up their small corner of the planet, and were excited to earn an income while improving their community. It was refreshing to see people not worried about the prices of various coins, but rather encouraged by the tangible impact that blockchains could have on their lives.
Incentives as a Spark
One of the most interesting dynamics we saw throughout the weekend was the manner in which people shifted from being extrinsically motivated to intrinsically. Many who attended the event came out simply because they saw the opportunity to earn supplementary income. However, as we engaged with participants on an individual basis, we learned about the sense of personal accomplishment they felt in collectively improving their environment.
Extrinsic incentives may be the spark that ignites action, but it’s the self-motivation, celebration, and community validation that keep the fire burning.
As a company whose entire charge is to motivate action using extrinsic incentives (i.e. bounties), this was a truth none of us had considered uncovering, yet the individual stories we heard drove the point home. We’re looking forward to seeing how we can continue to use bounties in this manner, encouraging people to overcome the initial hurdles of doing social and environmental good without having to necessarily incentivize them in perpetuity.
Talking TO the Unbanked Instead of ABOUT them
One of the main motivators for creating and running a pilot project like Bounties for the Oceans was to actually engage with the individuals who we, as an ecosystem, spend so much time describing at conferences and on panels. It immediately became clear to us that this was a significant departure from the norm — how many dapps working to help on-board the “unbanked” have ever actually spoken to the people they’re describing?
We spent much of the cleanup talking to locals from around the metro Manila area, and the stories we heard were fascinating: fishermen whose jobs were erased due to overfishing and pollution, community members whose entire livelihood is based on recycling the plastic that floated into Manila Bay, and students looking towards their future and the future of the world around them. This barely scratches the surface of what we learned, but we will share more of these stories at a later date.
The Issues we Faced
While this event was by all accounts a success, there are a number of challenges we ran into and we want to share them with the Ethereum community and anyone observing our work in the ecosystem. After all, the entire point of this event was to test our assumptions on the ground, going way beyond a traditional cleanup.
- Education: By far the most prominent issue we faced during the event was around education. Most of the participants had never even heard of Bitcoin, let alone other blockchains like Ethereum or smart contracts. We only had 2 hours to get people accustomed to the flow of the technology, and most people were entirely unfamiliar with the technology to begin with. It became abundantly clear to us that in order to explain how they were getting paid, we needed to cut to the gist: why do blockchains matter for this group of people. In Manila, we found it valuable to describe some of the benefits for cross-border payments, since many Filipinos already rely heavily on international payment rails. We also saw the obvious benefit of education by obfuscation — explaining what was happening without ever getting into how.
- Having a Wallet: After education, on-boarding users onto wallets was a challenging hurdle. Only 10% of participants who decided to attend the event had working smartphones. Of those, a considerable percentage came from illegitimate manufacturers, and therefore couldn’t run any of the mobile wallet apps available for download in the Philippines (of which there were two). As a result, we ended up relying on volunteer reps to fulfill the bounty on behalf of the participants. Our exchange partner on the ground, Coins.ph, could then convert and assign the funds to individual users based on their phone numbers, with pick up available at a multitude of locations across Manila and the entire country. Our hope is to continue innovating on this front, without sacrificing the entire point of decentralized technologies — the ability for users to administer their funds autonomously.
- Paying Gas: While this issue was Bounties Network specific (as our dapp still requires bounty fulfillers to pay a nominal amount of gas), we thought it important to document here. Even though we were paying for users’ gas (sending them ETH once their wallet was setup), waiting for the transactions to confirm before users could fulfill the bounty added complexity to the process. We are hard at work solving this issue, experimenting with a myriad of meta-transaction solutions that will let us easily subsidize the gas on behalf of our users.
- Internet: This was an issue which we had expected, and unsurprisingly it manifested, not only due to the slow internet speeds we faced in the middle of a natural habitat reserve, but also because most participants simply didn’t have mobile data plans they could rely on. We quickly realized that we needed to setup hotspots in order to minimize the amount of data being transferred from the devices of participants to our servers, and vice versa. An important facet to remember here is that in most developing countries, mobile phones operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning that every single additional megabyte that was transmitted resulted in a decrease in the net payout participants would eventually receive. Data is money.
These are some of the issues we faced when on-boarding new users to our dapp. Since the pilot was all about testing our social impact model within real communities for concrete initiatives, we believe these takeaways are incredibly valuable. As the Ethereum ecosystem begins to shift its focus away from crypto-economic research for scaling, towards end-user research for improved on-boarding, we want to encourage every single reader to run experiments like this one, even if it’s just in their own communities. It’s a process that was full of friction, but we need to experience that friction in order to smooth out the process.
What was the Impact?
As many critical readers of this post might be thinking, the reality is that the long-term environmental impact we made was quite minimal. We taught 224 people about cryptocurrency and cleaned up just over 3 tonnes of trash consisting of 315 kg of plastic, 103kg of rubber, 120 kg styro, and 27kg glass bottles. However, ultimately we know that when the next storm comes, a new wave of trash will be washed ashore, ready to be picked up.
We also haven’t taken any real steps to address the issue at hand: where is this trash coming from? It’s well known that these types of beach cleanups usually function as mechanisms for education and evangelism rather than long-term impact, showing people the realities of where our straws and plastic bags end up, as well as helping to spread the cleanup message to a wider audience.
After running this event, we’ve realized that the real impact we made was social rather than environmental — teaching participants (and those following the project) about the lifecycle of trash, so they can make long-term behavioural changes on their own. Our hope is that this event will also create long-lasting benefit because now we understand how incentives can be used to motivate people to take action, and similarly how our dapp can be improved for more of these types of use-cases in the developing world. Most importantly, seeing as the cost of the event was less than the cost of a sponsorship slot at an industry event, we’re quite happy with the ROI we’ll achieve as a result.
Our Reflections as a Team
Running the Bounties for the Oceans clean-up event, we felt a profound sense of rejuvenation and inspiration — we were reminded of why we we’re building Bounties Network in the first place. It’s easy for us to get distracted with crypto conferences and Twitter beef. Nothing can compare to actually speaking with people on the ground, and watching as they begin to understand the potential technology has to improve their lives. It felt good to know that we were fighting the on-boarding war directly on the front lines, and making a real difference for the planet while we did it. We hope that this event can inspire more dapps to journey to new communities, understand their stories, and learn about how they can bridge the gap between the technologists and those who need this tech the most.
Finally, we wanted to take a moment to thank every single organizer and volunteer who attended the event and made it possible. Here’s a long list of people who made a tangible impact on this event (in no particular order). Simona Pop, Ben Siegel, Cheryl Douglass, Aiai Garcia, Nathan Beer, Will Lee, Gabriel Tumlos, Will King, Amanda Dominguez, Jonny Howle, Scott Moore, Dean Eigenmann, the entire Full House team (Chriz Serrano Zabala, Maricel Ticar Santos, Alex Godinez), the entire Coins.ph team (Ron Hose, Christina Vergara, Colin Goltra, Kyle Vega, Aaron Galano), and many more.
Looking ahead, we’re incredibly excited for the future.
Long after this event is over, individuals in Manila can continue working to restore the health of their ecosystem and earn an income while doing it. The true value of bounties for social impact is empowering individuals and communities to self organize without the need for an organization to administer the process. Enabling, organizing, and facilitating positive action across the globe are the core ways we can re-engineer how the world works. We are committed to expanding the Bounties for the Oceans movement as a means of galvanizing action across the globe.