OxChain: exploring how best to trade data as currency

Chris Speed is Chair of Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh

Chris Speed is Chair of Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh

The Personal Data & Trust Network has published a series of blog posts by the award holders of EPSRC DE Theme TIPS; a call supporting user driven and interdisciplinary research solving problems in trust, identity, privacy and security. This blog post* covers the OxChain project, which explores how data can be used as a currency.

In 10 years, nearly every person on the surface of the earth will be online. This will allow us to mine the same huge amounts of data that companies like Google are currently using to their benefit. That data should be open and transparent and everybody will know what is going on across the whole economic value chain at any given moment. Everybody – from small businesses to individuals – will have their own apps to mine this data and make sense of it, to produce our own goods and services and offer them at near zero marginal cost to others in a new sharing economy”- Rifkin 2015.

Bold and provocative, Rifkin calls for the use of data to inform new models for society in which the ‘take-make-dispose’ value chains of the 20th Century are superseded by digital economies that support circular economies. Interested in responding to Rifkin’s call, a team of academics have developed a research project with Oxfam UK, that sets out to understand how distributed ledger technology can be used to broker value in the interests of people and the environment.

The OxChain project will explore the emerging challenges of how best to trade data as a currency, as different stakeholders interact with different objects, such as secondhand clothes, in the Oxfam network. The project team identified that distributed ledger technologies may offer a key to this research challenge because they may have a unique capacity to broker value between stakeholders in a decentralised manner. This characteristic offers a research opportunity to address how objects in the Oxfam system that one person or shop may not value, can be offered to another person who will value them, helping the flow of second hand items lead to people who value them the most.

While many organisations are rethinking how their business models are adapted toward the digital economy, it isn’t easy for charities such as Oxfam to remodel their business without some radical thinking. With 20th Century business models hinging on a ‘take-make-dispose’ economy that relies on low-cost and available resources, Oxfam are constantly looking for ways to make their business more sustainable.

Design, the circular economy and smart contracts

In contrast to linear economies, a ‘circular economy’ is one in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and their maximum value is extracted while in use followed by the recovery of materials at the end of each service life. Design projects such as the BitBarista demonstrate how cryptocurrencies can transform the function of objects by dynamically managing the value of services.

The BitBarista is a Raspberry Pi-enhanced Delonghi home coffee machine enabling the computer to control its functions. BitBarista has its own Bitcoin account, so it can accept and make Bitcoin payments. This means that customers can pay for coffee in Bitcoin, and BitBarista can also make Bitcoin payments to customers in return for maintenance tasks such as refilling the water or cleaning away coffee grinds. The idea is that BitBarista becomes semi-autonomous, trading with customers to take care of its own maintenance requirements.

The OxChain project seeks to use distributed ledger technology to provide a secure, trustworthy underpinning for the emerging circular economy. It will demonstrate this through addressing specific challenges identified by global consultants McKinsey & Company for Oxfam. These challenges involve exploring changes to Oxfam’s business model to provide a ‘smart’ environment both comprehensible and safe for all users, including donors, volunteers, shop managers and potential shoppers that maximise value capture while also reducing environmental impact from donated artefacts.

A further example of how design can help to introduce the potential of technologies such as smart contracting is Happily Ever After, a location-based service that offers short-term Bitcoin unions through the blockchain. Blessed with a small amount of Bitcoin, the application merges and shares a Bitcoin wallet for the duration of short marriages. By sealing romantic agreements in the blockchain, the temporary weddings are immutably recorded in an ever growing database of encrypted marriages. This speculative but fully functional prototype, questions traditional forms of legal contracts and explores new opportunities in smart contracting technology and software.

Developed as a project for the third industrial revolution, the aim of OxChain is to create a practical and scalable framework in which value is negotiated across a distributed ledger. In doing so, it will offer insight into how digital economies can support sustainable practices through tackling the emerging personal, social and organisational challenges to security and privacy that arise from the new forms of ownership, new forms of lending and new legal contracts presented by distributed ledgers.

With a start date of 1 September 2016, and the Universities of Edinburgh, Newcastle and Lancaster working closely with Oxfam, the project hopes to address a ‘real world’ challenge and use radical research solutions to evolve the current models of practice.


BitBarista was developed by the Design Informatics team: Rory Gianni, Ella Tallyn, Mark Kobine, Larissa Pschetz and Chris Speed.

Happily Ever After was developed in collaboration with James Stewart, Max Dovey and Corina Angheloiu during the Blockchain City workshop at the Citylab conference in Amsterdam. Design and technology by Chris Speed, Larissa Pschetz, Dave Murray-Rust, Hadi Mehroupya and Bettina Nissen. 

*This blog post was originally posted on the Personal Data & Trust Network website.

Related ESPRC blog posts:

Chris Speed is Chair of Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh and is also Co-Director of the Design Informatics Research Centre. You can contact him at c.speed@ed.ac.uk

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