Blockchain Builds Momentum at IEEE SA With Pharmaceutical, Agricultural Initiatives
Blockchain is the technology that underlies virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, allowing for verification of the virtual currency, while still protecting the security of information behind that verification. But its possibilities go beyond virtual currencies, with applicability to many areas of commerce—and life—where security and privacy are both concerns.
IEEE SA Industry Connections (IC) is exploring many possible applications for blockchain, and one of them is the pharmaceutical industry. IEEE’s Maria Palombini says, “The supply chain in pharmaceuticals is based on legacy systems with gaping holes in security, putting patient data at risk; the supply chain is fragmented, systems don’t communicate with each other even within the same company. And especially with the internet, there can be no way to verify the source of drugs online, raising the issue of counterfeit drugs.”
Blockchain has the potential to bring security to this system while maintaining the privacy of patients and all the other players along the supply chain. “It allows you to verify trusted partners, all working on the original source record at once. At the same time, you don’t have to give everyone else access to your data,” says Palombini. “If every step is a trusted partner, you don’t have to see everything to know that it’s verified.” Conversely, blockchain protects against hacking those records. “I don’t call anything hack-proof,” Palombini says, “but with blockchain, the moment somebody alters that record, the record replicates at every level and the hack is recognized instantly. You’re not going to have the situation where a hack happens and it’s five months before you realize it.”
Beyond this kind of elemental security, blockchain has the potential to change how other beneficial parts of the industry work, such as patient trials and drug research. “Getting patients for trials is hard, and it leaves out large parts of the population—older people are especially difficult to recruit,” says Palombini. “The records are often kept on paper, people change jobs and then you don’t know how well the records were kept.” Blockchain offers a way for anonymized information to be collected much more immediately and accurately, while protecting the privacy of patients.
As the IEEE Blockchain initiative was approaching the point of transitioning to the standards process, members of the IC activity realized that the same approach of verification along a supply chain could be applied to other areas, such as the food chain. Palombini sees two robust applications in agriculture. “One is consumer safety. As consumers take more interest in local and organic food, concerns about labor exploitation in seafood production, etc., blockchain or other distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) have the ability to verify the source of the food from its origin through to the consumer's table, connecting the consumer to farms in a new way. Beyond verifying the source of the food, blockchain can also offset unfair pricing systems, helping in compliance with regulatory practices and enhance better environmental practice.”
Another area that would benefit from this approach is what’s sometimes called Smart Farming—farms that utilize sensor technologies for more sustainable farming practices (i.e., efficient water irrigation) and uses, effective analysis of soil richness. Blockchain offers a way to efficiently distribute data in real time, both for better management of the farm and to aid research in better practices.
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