Co-Transactions

Transactions with another

Since 2017 I’ve been leading an EPSRC funded project with Oxfam to explore how the international NGO might use blockchain technology within their many complex projects. By the second year the team had identified with Oxfam an interesting opportunity for sending secure transactions across borders, with a capacity to confirm receipt.

In the run up to Christmas 2017 Oxfam launched a trial that allowed UK donors to text £10 to a service to support people in Iraq with basic groceries. The scheme worked with local traders and e-voucher technology which enabled conflict affected households to access essential items.

“The One Solution e-voucher technology methodology has seen great success in the Iraqi context, where tech savvy communities and the traders that serve them, can use the system to buy and sell with ease, meaning people get critical items in a more rapid and efficient manner.” Oxfam

My guess is that by Christmas later that year, Oxfam explored an extension to the pilot by asking UK donors the opportunity to ‘top up’ the e-cards of Iraqi families from a great distance. The added ‘value’ to the proposition of giving to the cause was the promise of a text message back to the donor that informed them about what their money was spent on. Aimed at allowing families the opportunity to choose what they need (rather than having value locked in material goods that were defined by the aid agency) the system also kept a ledger of what individuals bought. Details about this purchase, and a suggestion as to their gender gave the UK donor a glimpse into how their donation was spent.

On Friday the 15th of December 2017 I received a text message back from Oxfam telling me that “In the last 24 hours, an Iraqi man bought £10 worth of lentils and milk.” The feedback  was enough to provide a genuine sense of another person across a network. Of course, it’s not a full receipt but given that the pilot and system is designed to “empower households to choose, in a dignified way, what their needs are”, the last thing they or I need is to be seen to track them.

What was never clear was how the holder of the card knew how much credit was on their card or if someone (like me) had topped it up. What did become clear through early conversations with Oxfam, was that the Iraqi scheme was a series of financial technologies bolted together (with humans in the middle) to allow the money to flow into different accounts.

In a recent Design Informatics seminar, our guest speaker Björn Rust described how blockchain and a tokenisation scheme has supported a more advanced pilot in which card holders could use their smart phones to even more in control of donated funds. Björn was involved in the roll out of the UnBlocked Cash pilot that was deployed by Oxfam in partnership with Sempo and ConsenSys.

“The infrastructure provides a running ledger of live, traceable transactions, from the moment funds are loaded to the system, to the moment they are spent. Cross-border transactions are made quicker, and easier – using stable denominations of digital cash. Smart contracts help automate reconciliation processes, and cryptography ensures security without compromising transparency.” Oxfam.

Over the course of a month, Oxfam and its partners distributed 966,443 Vanuatu Vatu (VUV) to 187 heads of households and 29 vendors, which was estimated to have directly benefited some 1,209 individuals in two urban communities in one of the world’s most at-risk countries. The system was the first example of a DLT-based CVA in the Pacific and the first globally to employ a stablecoin. Additionally, the system was uniquely designed to withstand periods without connectivity while avoiding double-spends by using near-field communication (NFC) cards in tandem with a side-channel.

The UnBlocked Cash is an Oxfam success story both for trialling blockchain but also in finding an easy method for participants and communities to adopt a new technology for the disbursal of money. However the model retains a simple binary relationship between buyer and seller. Moving to work within the Oxchain project, an opportunity arose to add more social, environmental and economic paramaters / actors within a transaction.

Acting with another

Although information that was returned to the UK donor (myself) in the Iraqi One Solution pilot changed the value proposition, the economic flow of value remained the same in both Oxfam projects – one way toward the recipient in need. I have no problem with this, as I type into an Apple laptop from the comfort of my own home during a global pandemic, I recognise my privilege and position within the network. Nevertheless, I am interested in how the information about the Iraqi man and his purchase of lentils and milk changed the representation of value. Was I paying for the proof that I had helped someone? Was I simply comforted in the knowledge that my money had translated into tangible benefits for another? In light of the Haiti scandal that rocked Oxfam through 2018, did the feedback install more trust for me in how the global charity disbursed its funds? Or did I just like the idea that someone was at the other end of the network, as though it was a telephone line?

If it was the latter then money in these forms is still failing to represent social interaction across a transaction. To demonstrate how rich these interactions could be (of which there are many) I’ll use the hacks that people find in paying for car parking tickets.

Hacking with another

Previously in the highly analogue environment of car parks, payment systems operated a simple set of rules that in most cases forced people to pay for the time that their car was in a parking bay. In a typical ‘pay and display’ carpark in the UK, drivers and their passengers find a free parking bay and park their car. As everybody leaves the car, one of them will visit the ticket machine and pay for a particular amount of time for a set fee – 1hour, 2 hours, 4 hours etc. A ticket is dispensed from the machine according to the amount put into the machine. Often printed as a sticker, the car user returns to their car and uses the sticky side of the ticket to attach the ticket to the inside of their car window to display the ticket. But sometimes, social navigation offers another way to play this game.

Hack one: We might get lucky and find that someone has stuck a ticket on to the ticket machine itself, signalling that there is substantial amount of time left on their ticket and that it may be still of use to another car. Of course, each car user will decide whether the time left on the ticket is appropriate to their personal plans, but if it is – then they are in luck!

(see example of the hack by @Matt_Fido to help out people visiting NHS carparks)

These days we’re more likely to find that ticket machines offer a ‘pay by mobile’ service that allows the car user to use their mobile phone to pay for time in the car park. Using an app or telephoning the number on the machine, car users can identify the car park through the use of a specific code and pay using their credit/debit card for units of time (similar to the analogue ticket machine). However, use of the ‘pay by mobile’ service does away with a physical ticket. Instead your identity and the car’s identity are linked and presumably traffic wardens are alerted to time associated with the colour, make and registration of a person’s car. As time runs out on the ticket, the car user is sent a text message telling them that the specific place will run out in 10 mins.

Hack two: Whilst the first person who added time to the car may be unable to reuse the app or the telephone service, another member of the original ‘car party’ can use the car parks location code and their app to add further time to the car – without having to leave the shopping centre / coffee shop. Of course if people so desired they could even ‘top up’ a strangers car from a distance.

These small ‘hacks’ are commonly known and allow individuals a small amount of agency within the jurisdiction of the ‘space’ of car parking, however both instances require a third party to support the action: a gift from another, or a member of your party that is equally equipped with knowledge and technology. This triad suggests a conditional transaction that requires just one more ‘order’ to a transaction. Something that we didn’t see in the Oxfam projects, and instead adds an additional turn that involves another to support the flow of value. Reminscient of ‘If This Then That’ recipes that require conditions to be met before a piece of code enacts a function (turning on an IoT light if the sun goes down), these new social conditions for value offer interesting new opportunities to design the flow of money (worth looking at Chris Elsden et al’s paper on this).

Oxchain Smart Donations

Always preferring to finish with a project of our own, I introduce the Oxchain Smart Donations app that was released as a pilot with Oxfam Australia. The app on Android and iOS, allowed donors to pledge funds, set conditions and undertake ‘smart contracts’ to determine how and when they would give to the charity. During the 6-week trial, following Oxfam Australia’s recruitment of participants, donors were given $10 that was locked in escrow on the app. The app invited participants the opportunity to place the money into ‘smart contracts’ with global events, and depending upon the outcome of these contracts monies, would be released to Oxfam projects. For example, every time there was an earth quake of X magnitude, across X continents, over a period of X days, X dollars would be transferred to an Oxfam Emergency Response fund. An underpinning blockchain is used to create and enforce a contract between donor and charity which locks funds in place, and releases them if, or when, pre-set conditions are met.  Crucially however, these Smart Donations rely on a trusted data source, for example an Earthquake monitoring service, which determines when funds are released (paper by Ludwig Trotter et al that introduces the technology).

In this simple triangulation between donor, social or environmental event and the recipient of funds, it is not social navigation that is informing the event, but a network bond between all ‘actors’. Who or what is providing the attestation is visible in a drop down menu which in this version obfuscates the thing or person (it tends to be the technical service), but returns us to the affect of being part of a co-transaction.


Acknowledgements: The project is funded by EPSRC with partners at University of Lancaster and University of Northumbria. Development of the Smart Donations App for iPhone and Android was led by Ludwig Trotter. Conceptual development was led by Chris Elsden, with Nic Bidwell in support.

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