Reducing the Digital Divide Using Blockchain

Blockchain allows for additional transparency and accountability while smart contracts enable business logic and rules to be managed more efficiently

Mehran Hydary, UNICEF Innovation
Angeline Chong, a student at the Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Subang Jaya school, studies with a fellow student at a cafe in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18 June 2019

The Background

Internet connectivity is an important tool to enable people around the world.  UNICEF’s Project Connect is mapping schools and their connectivity around the world to help people understand what regions are lacking basic connectivity.  Along with blockchain, Project Connect can help bring people online.

There are more than 300 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 across the globe that are not connected to the internet at school [1].  They lack connectivity to information that the rest of the world takes for granted. These children are being left behind, while their peers from wealthier and more connected regions are getting better education, access to health information, and higher financial inclusion [2]. Children that are disconnected will have a more difficult time finding jobs given that they are unable to acquire digital skills - digital skills that are now integrated into most jobs and livelihoods.

A UNICEF initiative, called Project Connect, has embarked on a journey to map all schools in the world using satellite imagery, machine learning, and data science.  With real-time data, governments and network providers can locate schools that do not have access to the internet. These maps can be used to drive partners to provide connectivity to these schools. Project Connect, along with Blockchain, can introduce the ability to connect these children in a fair and transparent manner around the globe.  Blockchain is a system in which records information are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network.

UNICEF can play a role in ensuring that every child has an opportunity at the best possible education with access to the internet at school.  It is a critical step to bridge the growing digital divide and providing modern skills for the modern workforce.

Screen Capture from the Project Connect Website
UNICEF Innovation/Project Connect
Screen Capture from the Project Connect Website

Project Connect

Maps from Project Connect can bring together public and private sectors with the shared goal of creating equal access to connectivity, or gigabytes.  There is a need for global connectivity, identified in the Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.  In the report it mentions that by 2030, every adult should have affordable access to digital networks [3].

Screen Capture from the Project Connect Website
UNICEF Innovation/Project Connect
Screen Capture from the Project Connect Website

Blockchain and Project Connect

Blockchain can play a role in Project Connect by enabling a more transparent and accountable network. With blockchain, Project Connect can provide users visibility into how donations are being used to connect more schools around the world, what speed of internet each of the connected schools has, and managing the contracts between a region of schools and an internet service provider.

Screen capture of a prototype that is being built at UNICEF Innovation
UNICEF Innovation
Screen capture of a prototype that is being built at UNICEF Innovation

Initial Explorations

To explore where blockchain can play a role in increasing the transparency and accountability of the system, UNICEF set out to build an initial prototype of how daily internet connectivity speeds could be captured on a public blockchain.

Initially, UNICEF set up physical sensors in schools in Colombia.  These sensors were keeping track of upload and download speeds for each of the computers that the sensors were attached too.  On a daily basis, the sensors would publish these results to the Ethereum blockchain, a public blockchain infrastructure. This enabled anyone to see the connectivity for schools in Colombia and feel fairly confident that the data hasn’t been tampered with.  

Expanding on the initial prototype, and looking at alternatives that could overcome difficulties that are associated with physical devices (e.g. needing to buy probes, ship them, deal with humidity, upkeep, etc), browser extensions are being explored.  This extension can track the download and upload speed of a computer. Instead of relying on a physical sensor, the connectivity data can now be provided to the blockchain through software - a lower barrier to monitoring.


Key Learnings

Blockchain and Project Connect allows countries to see where their schools are.  The project can show if schools are connected. If the schools are connected, what speed the schools receive, which enables content providers to provide content accordingly.  

Blockchain, along with Project Connect can be used to define a blockchain based platform for connectivity / gigabytes around the world.

If we can connect all of the world’s children by providing connectivity to all schools, we can maximize their access to greater economic opportunities, increased access to information, and better services.