Identity crisis

By Emilie Skogvang

Earlier this year, Innovation Norway and the UN agency UN Women signed an innovation agreement that will promote gender equality by exploring the possibilities in new technologies. The purpose of the partnership is to connect the challenges identified by UN Women to Norwegian solutions that can help empower women all over the world.

Double jeopardy

UN data shows that female refugees are less likely to survive than male refugees. Women who are unaccompanied, pregnant or elderly are especially at risk. Girls and women are more likely to be left behind in humanitarian crises, and they represent a big part of the total number of people who do not have access to identity papers. When women cannot document their identity, it makes it impossible for them to acquire basic health- and financial services. They will not get residence permit or work permit, access to education or health services, and basically not be able to take part of the society or get help in any way. UN data also shows that there are 1,5 billion people in the world who are not included in the financial infrastructure because they do not have access to identity papers. Being able to prove their identity, women will be empowered to take charge of their own lives Today, women are left in a double jeopardy, not only being refugees, but also being women with fewer possibilities and rights than male refugees. As a result of the innovation agreement between Innovation Norway and UN Women, some of the greatest Norwegian and international tech-minds, creatives and social forces will gather in Oslo in May 2017 for a so called 36 hour hackathon with the aim to “crack the code” to come up with a solution to the issue of identity through blockchain technology.

The blockchain revolution

What is blockchain technology? You have probably heard about the virtual crypto currency Bitcoin. And no, it is not just money for nerds. Bitcoin is a digital currency based on blockchain technology, which blockchain enthusiasts claim will revolutionize the economy. A blockchain is a decentralized, distributed database with built-in validation. The blockchain is a ledger of records arranged in data packages or blocks that use cryptographic validation to link themselves together. The blocks form a chain, and each block has a timestamp and a link to the previous block.

What is so interesting, and some would say revolutionary about blockchain, is that it eliminates the third party middle man from all transactions. In the case of Bitcoin, this means that the banks do not have to validate the transactions because the blocks are self-validating and totally secure. The blockchain ledger is not stored in one location like a bank, but is distributed and public. The block validation system ensures that nobody can tamper with the records. Old transactions are preserved in the ledger, and new are added irreversibly. Anyone in the blockchain network can check the ledger and see the exact same transaction history as everyone else. However, blockchain is a technology which is not limited to financial transactions. It can also be applied to a wide range of areas including digital proof of identity.

Taking refuge in blockchain

In the humanitarian context, blockchain technology can be used to build up a digital proof of identity. The blocks in the chain can validate each other without intervention from intermediates. In cultures where men control women’s financials, this can liberate women in many ways. Blockchain makes it easy and safe for anyone to build and maintain immutable and secure personal records and to transfer digital assets directly without intermediates or additional costs. In this way girls and women in humanitarian crises will be able to have safe records of important documents that are needed to rebuild their life and participate in economic activities after a crisis. If this project succeeds, it can empower refugees all over the world to take charge of their own lives and get the medical and financial aid they need.

We believe that technological innovations – so called blockchain technology- can contribute to giving women the help they need in a crisis. Many refugees fail to prove their identity, and by giving women the chance to identify themselves, they can be included in the financial infrastructure. It will make it easier for the people giving and receiving help, and also for women’s work – and financial possibilities after a disaster, explains Ingvild von Krogh Strand, responsible for the blockchain project in Innovation Norway.

Author’s note: This article was written in April, about three weeks before the hackathon took place.