Ottawa firm Bitaccess powers feds’ blockchain experiment

Moe
Bitaccess co-founder and CEO Moe Adham. Photo by Craig Lord.

A local startup is helping the federal government take its first steps into the blockchain with a pilot program to publish open data on grants and other financial contributions.

Bitaccess, the firm behind the Bitcoin ATM, has developed a platform called Catena that can help public institutions put information on the blockchain, a highly secured public ledger that acts as the foundation for cryptocurrencies – just one of the technology’s complex uses.

Through the Build in Canada Innovation Program, Bitaccess has landed an enormous guinea pig for its product: the Government of Canada.

The pilot is being run out of the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, a common source of funding for Canadian startups. The NRC will publish information about any awarded grants and contributions through Catena in real-time, at which point it will be secured to the blockchain through a platform called Ethereum.

So what?

The difference between uploading data sets like these to a blockchain as opposed to a standard web page is about who has final control over the information.

Once information is hosted on the blockchain, it cannot be altered. Hundreds of thousands of nodes – computers around the world that are sustaining the blockchain – simultaneously verify the data, ensuring that no one source can change it, including the original poster. Catena is user-facing as well, meaning citizens can browse through an exact log of IRAP spending.

That can go a long way for government accountability. While information can be amended, it can never be edited without leaving a clear audit trail. Bitaccess CEO Moe Adham says this makes the government’s posts on Catena “irrefutable.”

Adham says it was actually Bitaccess that approached the NRC about implementing blockchain. The federal agency was the “first to bite,” he says, perhaps because it has a mandate to explore use-cases for blockchain technology.

Alex Benay, the federal government’s chief information officer, has been vocal about the need for government IT to catch up with emerging technology.

“If we don’t change how we do things, we will potentially become more and more obsolete,” Benay told Techopia last May.

Experimentation

“This is very much an experiment,” Adham says of the pilot. But there are many directions this experiment could go.

Bitaccess has long been interested in a problem that’s fundamental to blockchain: Because of its decentralized nature, there’s no clear way to get authoritative data – say, land rights – onto the ledger. With Catena, Adham says they’re hoping to establish a firm model for governments and institutions to publish that kind of information on the blockchain.

Eventually, the government and other authoritative institutions such as banks could encode more complicated contracts and exchanges using this technology. Transfers of land deeds, getting multiple parties to sign onto a single contract, processing the payment of IRAP grants – from real estate to law, there’s a myriad of potential disruptions that Bitaccess sees in blockchain’s future.

“That’s a noble goal, but to get there, it’s going to take steps like this,” Adham says.