Blockchain, Self-Sovereign Identity and the “Off-Grid” People – Opinion

Education, Opinion | August 17, 2018 By:

It’s an all too common scenario for immigrants and refugees–very often they’ve left almost everything of their previous life behind in order to start over in a new country where they will be safer and have more opportunities for a better life. That doesn’t just mean houses and possessions; it sometimes means abandoning your own knowledge and accomplishments. How many taxi drivers and sanitation workers and customer service reps had advanced degrees, medical licenses, etc. in their home countries that still don’t qualify them to work in the same capacity after they resettle?

While part of this problem is rooted in protective regulations that limit how refugees and immigrants can operate in their new countries, it is also difficult to verify ID and certifications for refugees who may have had to leave their documentation behind. And even if ID can be produced it may not be accepted as valid.

Self-sovereign identity (SSI) is essentially the idea that we create our identities through our daily interactions, both online and offline. For instance, when you provide your driver’s license as verification of your age when you buy alcohol, that store or bar is trusting you to provide accurate identification, and trusting that the DMV knows how old you are, but they don’t have a single central authority to check with before they sell you your beer.

Identity by its nature is decentralized–no single entity tells you who you are, you affirm it yourself with those behaviors and it can be verified by multiple parties–meaning it is already ideally suited for a decentralized solution like blockchain. Blockchain lets people control their own identities by storing identifying information in a distributed ledger, enabling them to transact and share information with end-to-end authentication, without the need for a central authority to verify that they are who they say they are. SSI facilitates trust between distant parties and mitigates the risk of identity theft and other types of fraud.

So how does this translate to verifying employment and educational credentials? The concept is pretty much the same. As a U.S. citizen, when you graduate from college, you are provided with a degree, the document that verifies you have completed the training and coursework necessary to attain that designation. But your potential employer doesn’t want a copy of your degree; they want to know you have the skills and knowledge necessary to execute the tasks of the role, and that is something verified not by a single authority but by previous job experience and your interactions with people in that context.

So when a potential employer is looking at a refugee with a degree from University of Yangon in Myanmar and years of experience working as an architect and an American citizen with a degree from UCLA and years of experience working as an architect, their ability levels may be exactly the same but it is hard to know without a universal standard by which to evaluate them.

And in reality, that standard doesn’t exist. Skills and knowledge aren’t acquired solely through the university system, especially for refugees fleeing unsafe or unlivable conditions who could not even fathom access to an American university education.

ExsulCoin has created open source educational videos for refugees in the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh to learn English, to aid them in the integration process and give them more opportunities to find work after resettlement. The company is now in the process of developing ongoing coursework designed to train refugees for engineering work, also delivered via YouTube. The videos often use animation to enable wider understanding of concepts and teach subjects virtually when hands-on learning isn’t possible.

The ultimate goal of this program is to identify people suited to join software development teams based in the U.S.  And while ExsulCoin is constantly creating culturally appropriate, widely accessible general education resources to help as many displaced people as possible, this foundry model helps create clear pathways to employment and stability for resettled refugees by assigning them to specific projects.

Whether it’s basic language, general education, or job specific training, these “students” are not sitting in a classroom, with paperwork in an administrative office verifying their enrollment. They’re accessing videos on YouTube, via Smart phones that they might be sharing with other people, connected to the Internet by mesh networks in refugee camps. So how can one measure and verify comprehension of these lessons at every level, without “proper” identification or certification, no credit card payment on file, no degree or certificate?

Distributed ledger technology allows individuals to store identifiers of themselves and their actions in a chronological chain, authenticated at each stage by a consensus and tokenized as a record and incentive. So biometric data captured by the thumbprint reader on a smartphone creates one verified nonce in the chain, and then every document becomes another link in the chain, authenticated by each online interaction, and then the chain itself becomes a working ID. Governments are already using most of these markers to issue identification, blockchain simply removes the need for that central authority.

The concept of self-sovereign identity and credentialing via blockchain can be applied in many instances, but it is proving itself especially vital to refugees and other marginalized “off-grid” people. Basic education is key to integration, but not all refugees are uneducated; they need pathways to employment and a stable existence following their displacement. Many of the nuances and standards of blockchain-powered SSI are still being established, but even now they have enabled refugees and companies like ExsulCoin to remove the bottleneck of centralized authority and create those pathways.