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How blockchain could improve the population census

Conducting a census on blockchain-based application can ensure transparency as well as security of personal data.
by Zeeshan-ul-Hassan Usmani

Population census is a mandatory requirement under the United Nations’ framework for international state system, and it serves as a basis for formulation of public policies related to finance and economy as well as health, education and other social sectors.

Under the system followed by most states including Pakistan, data gathering and tabulation during a census is a laborious task. Besides, there are serious limitations regarding the accuracy of data collected on minority communities, immigrant populations, and undocumented people.

Religious and ethnic minorities and illegal immigrants are often under-reported in census data due to a host of socio-political circumstances. Similarly, undocumented groups may not be accurately counted in the census due to their living circumstances. More often than not, these groups reside in unregistered buildings, non-compliant house extensions, homeless shelters or in public squares and footpaths. Often, many families occupy a single building, making it difficult to assess the exact number of dwellers in census.

Under-reporting key figures remains a serious concern. Examples include complaints from ethnic and religious minority groups based in Nigeria’s southern region in successive censuses held in the country. Since revenue allocation among federating units depends on population figures, the census results in the country split between a politically dominant Muslim-majority north and an oil-rich south populated by various minority groups are often called into dispute.

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In Pakistan, the census authorities were heavily criticized in 2017 for understating population figures for the country’s largest city, Karachi. Similarly, the United States reportedly undercounted about 1.5 million people from minority groups in its 2010 census. The US government said that the 2010 census was mostly accurate but failed to account for more than 1.5 million minorities, including African-Americans, Hispanics, renters and young men.

Conducting a census on blockchain can provide a robust and tamper-proof solution to these problems.

Blockchain is a peer-to-peer decentralized distributed ledger that permanently records data and guarantees immutable and trustworthy transactions — of money or anything else of value like personal identity information. What makes it viable for a range of applications are characteristics like immutability, openness, and enhanced security. Additionally, its use requires no more than a computer connected to the Internet and can be undertaken voluntarily. Thus, compared to centralized structures, blockchain saves time, removes cost, reduces risk and increases trust.

Some countries have already made progress in this direction. The US and Saudi Arabia are set to use Internet-based survey and verification for census scheduled in 2020. In addition, the US Census Bureau is working on a series of tools that will use satellite and aerial imagery to accurately map out population clusters across the country, bringing down the number of human and financial resources required to conduct the census. However, critics warn that a lot more needs to be done before population census can go completely paperless to ensure data security, and this is where blockchain will come handy.

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Blockchain based applications can be particularly helpful in facilitating participation of minority and marginalized groups, including the homeless. Apart from offering features like immutability and communities’ and individuals’ control over their personal information, these applications can also be helpful in gathering data from diverse sources within the community like religious worship places, shelter homes, food programs, second language and adult learning centers, local parcel delivery and health visitors’ databases, as well as from public transport and ride sharing services.

Beyond these benefits, blockchain-based applications can enable authorities to incentivize participation in a census by giving control of data back to the citizens. Under such an arrangement, citizens will be able to own the rights to their data.

While census data is already used in GIS mapping and ecological surveys, with the introduction of blockchain technology, it can be used for marketing and research related activities too. Importantly, this will be done only after consent has been obtained for the purpose from citizens, who will be the owners of the data. Thus, businesses or researchers interested in acquiring datasets will be able to do so after making an agreed upon payment (in crypto-currency) to the citizens concerned.

The skeptics need only look at blockchain based data gathering systems already in use across the globe. Among these is a system developed by DevPost for the 2017 referendum held in Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain. The old system was centralized and vulnerable to DDoS attacks. Besides, it wasn’t scalable for periodic high-volume requests, making it unavailable most of the time. Security checks and validation were not possible either. The newly implemented blockchain-based system validated votes and monitored fraud in real-time.

Another example is the blockchain-based application developed by NovaTeqni Technology Corporation, a Canada based tech solutions provider, that records census data during user interviews. It provides transparency, security and scalability of blockchain to solve problems of data manipulation, such as losses and delays at data recording level during population interviews.

Such blockchain-enabled systems are quick and easy to capture data and meet current and future needs. These systems apply encryption to secure data on blockchain-based distributed census ledgers.

Under the United Nations’ conventions, the right to identity is one of the most fundamental human rights needed for social, cultural, economic and political well-being. With blockchain-based systems, we can envision a world where citizens don’t need to endure a plethora of ID verification steps while doing international travel or business transactions. They can use a single ID for all these various transactions.

Census Device TAB7

As most financial transactions in undocumented economies like Pakistan lack identity information of parties involved, a blockchain-based public ledger for national census can also be an excellent solution to the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) compliance requirements for anti-money laundering and terrorism-financing.

Like any new and emerging technology, it’s hard to predict with accuracy all future implications and drawbacks of switching to a system that has yet to be put into widespread use.

However, we can list down possible issues with the use of blockchain so that remedial measures can be devised in time. One of the issues mentioned frequently concerns identification management given the public nature of the system. For example, anyone can access and see the contents of a block in a blockchain. Without proper rules and steps to reveal what kind of information one wants to release in what particular situation, it would be hard to stop a malicious user to gain access to other users’ identity details.  Another problem relates to the rather slow speed of the verification process. This problem can most acutely be felt during verification at international border crossings. For example, if verification over the blockchain takes about 15 minutes per person, it will make immigration at border crossings a very tedious process, restricting the inflow of visitors and choking operations.

It’s important to bear in mind that population census has always been a government affair which has limited the possibility of innovation. With the introduction of blockchain technology, however, a new market will come into being and new players will emerge. These will range from traditional players like government’s statistical department responsible for conducting the census to companies involved in consultancy services related to demographic research, besides the general population at large.

This market can be extended by incorporating companies using data to drive network and advertisement traffic in and out of the country and to include foreign visitors and expats. Having the information of visiting expats on public blockchain would increase the monetization potential of such a system manifold.

In this backdrop, a hyper-ledger chain-code based blockchain application will be ideal for population census since it will take care of the needs of all stakeholders: the government, political parties, ethnic minorities, public departments and population at large. In Pakistan, this can be developed through regulatory sandbox under the guidance of regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) and State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). Since it’s based on Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), it will foster trust among all stakeholders and increase transparency and fairness, while promoting competition. Additionally, private companies and startups can also build decentralized applications (DApps) on top of this blockchain to find and monetize diverse applications based on census data. Due to the immutable nature of DLT records on the public ledger of census, everyone will be able to see, monitor, examine and flag any conflict of interest, making it a very competitive data marketplace.

Zeeshan-ul-Hassan Usmani has a PhD in Computer Science from the Florida Institute of Technology, where his work focused on big data for counter-terrorism. He has authored several books and his work has been featured in many publications including the Wall Street Journal, CNN and The Economist. His research interests include data sciences, blockchain, predictive analytics, and modeling human emergent behaviors. Currently, he is focusing on blockchain applications, self-aware smart contracts, and self-organized crypto assets.

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