Food Standards Agency Director of Openness, Data and Digital, Julie Pierce, and Save the Children CIO Karl Hoods joined CIO UK Editor Edward Qualtrough to discuss blockchain and distributed ledger technology during the third episode of the CIO UK podcast.
Both multiple CIO 100 members, Pierce and Hoods spoke about the use cases and proofs of concept of blockchain and distributed ledger technology in the charity sector and at the FSA, and how organisations investigating blockchain needed to work backwards from business problems rather than succumb to the hype and fall into the trap of investing in "a solution looking for a problem".
Launched in January 2018, the CIO UK podcast is a monthly discussion featuring CIOs, commentators and technology executives thrashing out the key issues relevant to the UK's business and technology leaders - as well as the tangential and irreverent musings of guest CIOs.
Pierce said that distributed ledger technology could significantly help regulators globally who were overseeing the worldwide supply chain.
"Within the UK getting on for half our food is imported from all across the world," she said. "Supply chains are extremely long and complex. From the FSA's point of view as a regulator they are outside our direct control, so how confident can we be that that when that food arrives at the port we actually know that it is both safe and what it says it is?
"Our use case has been conceptually to look at supply chains and see whether there is an application for blockchain technology in helping us all get greater certainty as to the actual food that's moving through; and again for us as the regulator to get greater transparency so we can actually see into the chain and see what's going on."
Hoods outlined a proof of concept that Save the Children has been involved in, its 'Humanitarian Passport' and how this verification of a volunteer during an emergency response could aid the whole charity sector.
"We've been looking at blockchain for the last couple of years as part of our innovation and disruption activity," Hoods said.
"We wanted a mechanism of when we deploy people in an emergency situation that we can verify that they've been through the necessary background checks. We wanted a mechanism of where we could pre-register people and give them a digital identity. Looking into the longer term future it's about how we could use that across Save the Children as a movement. The use of blockchain gives us that immutable record of a person who has been verified with a digital identity which can be used across the movement.
"Now we are talking to other organisations about how we can make that a sector-wide initiative."
Save the Children has developed its proof of concept using an enterprise blockchain platform rather than public blockchain, while Pierce said that rather than the FSA building the platform itself it was working with the business supply chain to make it better, faster and so that all parties could gain confidence in the food that is moving through the system.
What's in a CIO job title?
Commenting on different job titles for CIOs, Pierce said that the FSA's mission had been baked into her job title.
"I think my job title is fantastic," she said. "Openness encompasses communications so I also have comms within my portfolio, whether it be media, press or internal communications - that's partly what the 'openness' means.
"But more importantly, inherent in the whole ethos of the FSA is that we are open and transparent and so it's my responsibility - if nobody else does it - to ensure we as an organisation are open and transparent in everything that we do."
Hoods announced that he would be finishing his CIO role at Save the Children and joining Pierce in Whitehall when he becomes Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in April.
"It's a combination of digital, data and technology - those units combined to deliver for BEIS and reaching out into the wider business community," he said. "I can't wait - the breadth of what the department does is fantastic, from the minimum wage to decommissioning nuclear power plants, sustainable energy, AI and autonomous vehicles. From a subject matter it's going to be incredibly interesting."
Vetting the hype around blockchain, Pierce and Hoods said that distributed ledger technology could be transformational in a number of areas if used to solve real business problems.
"Blockchain is talked about as a solution to everything," Hoods said. "In some cases it's a solution in search of a problem and we definitely don't want to be in that situation."
Pierce added: "It's just a technology like so many others, and really we should be starting with the business problem.
"The blockchain will only be really transformational - if it ever gets there - if it's deployed with other technology."