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Data on Purpose, Field Notes

When It Comes to Blockchain, Are Good Intentions Enough?

In the Blockchain Ethical Design Framework, Cara LaPointe and Lara Fishbane outline how to design blockchain technologies with intention. “In the design process, to optimize the desired attributes of blockchain for a given application,” they write, “there will always be trade-offs.” The question is, are good intentions enough?

As the authors explain, “These human consequences could be the result of intentional action, but they could also be created unintentionally through blockchain technologies designed with positive motivations.”

LaPointe, a senior fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and a frequent speaker on blockchain, weighed the benefits against the risks at SSIR’s 2019 Data on Purpose conference.

LaPointe suggests that more transparency, accountability, and personal control over data could also come with weakened security and loss of privacy. “The tech you build has real effects on people’s lives,” she says.

As SSIR editors Eden Stiffman and Amadeo Tumolillo observe in their recap of the event, for LaPointe, “technology is just a tool serving an end, and one that must be handled carefully to manage the values embedded within it. Blockchain [technology] can help with everything from [providing identities] for refugee or homeless populations to conflict diamonds… but it is still human beings who design and run it.”

Much like other digital technologies, blockchain has the potential to have a large impact worldwide, accentuating the importance of an ethical approach like that outlined in the Blockchain Ethical Design Framework. “Small design choices can have resounding ethical consequences for people and communities,” write the authors.

How can the social sector ensure a more positive impact? LaPoint says, “Ask better questions to build better technologies.”

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