Blockchain for Humanitarian Supply Chain: The first steps towards a PoT

In the middle of October, I co-facilitated workshop for one of the most exciting blockchain projects I’ve had the privilege to work on as a blockchain architect! Me and two colleagues travelled from Munich to a rainy London to get to work with our innovative friends at Frontier Technology Livestreaming and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Here’s a link to a Medium post about the initial scoping phase of the project!

Drawing up the connections in Shoreditch, London.

The project is supported by the DFID innovation and future technologies programme, Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL). The programme seeks to improve how DFID applies new technologies across the world and sources ideas for projects from DFID staff. Naturally, blockchain is one of those technologies, and humanitarian supply chain operations are a very applicable area for this technology for three main reasons:

1. Transparency — Humanitarian supply chains could benefit from having the right tools to achieve increased transparency in a secure manner. More transparency could also facilitate collaboration across organisations.

2. Efficiency — If the operatives working at organisations in DFID and similar organisations (e.g. USAID, the UN World Food Programme, etc.) could rely more on the quality of data, they could focus on other matters. This could contribute to decreased “shrinkage” and thus improve efficiency as more goods are delivered to those in need.

3. Collaboration — Having a shared database of goods, shipments and — importantly — accountability, where many can write and read information, but not change the history, is an ideal setup for collaboration. This could enable the creation of standards for data models and improved service to both those funding (mostly tax payers) and beneficiaries on the receiving end.

Knowing this, and with experience in implementing and designing blockchain-based systems, we set out to set the scope for this Proof of Technology (PoT) and quite possibly the future of blockchain in humanitarian supply chains.
Everybody listening attentively to the supply chain expert and standardised item identification code aficionado, Julian of DFID’s CHASE HSOT department

The workshop

Starting out the workshop, I realised there is an enormous amount of knowledge to be gathered in the room, especially in the domain of supply chain and logistics. Their mission is essentially to deliver aid (in materials such as shelters or essentials such as water and hygiene kits):

  1. to the right people (taking into account all areas where UKAID are active)
  2. at the right time (considering various modes of delivery and sources)
  3. in the most efficient manner (less overhead means more effective capital)

This makes for a very complicated, but fascinating equation with a lot of uncertainties and a dire need for systems.

During the workshop, we managed to whittle down the scope for the PoT to apply to one shipment. We managed to define a clear use case with a small but effective feature set. Taking into account what we learnt from the supply chain experts, we targeted the PoT to address three main problems:

  1. Trustworthiness of data
  2. Efficiency of operations
  3. Accountability

What’s next

The project consists of building a blockchain-based system to track a sample shipment of plastic sheeting shelter kits (try to say that ten times in a row) from an offshore warehouse to multiple logistics service providers and a country where they are needed. There, they will have to be cleared through customs, meaning that a consignee will need to assume responsibility for the shipment. The project will also track this using a smart contract. Thereafter, a so-called implementing partner will start transporting and deploying the kits within the country.

For us, the next steps will be to build and iterate the platform in close collaboration with DFID. We believe that a key success factor is to gather lots of feedback from DFID and implementing partners as we develop it, and input that in the design loop. Finally, we’ll track a live shipment using the product. That experience will tell us whether this technology application has long-term potential.

If you have experience or are interested in learning more about this project and blockchain in humanitarian supply chains, feel free to comment on this post!