Remote voting, keeping track of personal achievements, logistics and even storing of genetic information – specialists from the Distributed Ledger Technologies Centre at St Petersburg University know how to make any of these operations secure, transparent and convenient, using protocols built on the blockchain. Executive Director Evgeny Pen told us about the projects the Centre is currently working on, as well as how St Petersburg University students can join the unique team of analysts and developers.
How was the Distributed Ledger Technologies Centre at the University organised?
In Russia, there is a government programme to support companies in new high-tech markets that may determine the structure of the global economy in the coming years. It is called the National Technology Initiative (NTI). The NTI projects include, for instance: AvtoNet – new technologies for self-driving vehicles and long-haul ground transportation using robotised road corridor; SafeNet – innovations in security systems for information and cyber technologies; EnergyNet – the latest technologies in the energy sector; and many others.
To develop innovative markets, cross-cutting technology solutions are required, such as: artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and distributed ledger technology (DLT). At the end of 2017, the University won the contest for the creation of the NTI Competence Centre the ‘Distributed Ledger Technologies Centre at St Petersburg University’.
What do the Centre staff members do?
The staff of the Centre has been entrusted with three tasks. The first task is to overcome technological barriers to implementing DLT in the economy. The second task is to overcome legal barriers. The third task is educational. The latter is especially important because today few people understand what distributed ledgers are. We need to prepare both users and customers, that is, we will have to teach the target audience to interact with our technology.
Moreover, the new target markets are still to be identified in detail, and we need to create DLT based applications and sell them. This technology can be used to store data about various types of transactions. So, our products can be used in accounting and distribution of data, smart contracts, elections, and other areas that involve automated decision-making. In other words, blockchain is needed wherever a trusted environment is required.
So, the Centre mostly employs programmers…
We do have a team of programmers: about 40 people, both students and experts. Yes, but that’s not all. There are also developers, project managers who organise and coordinate work on a specific task, designers, and employees who work in our educational department. The latter create educational programmes and then monitor how the programmes are implemented in the University academic departments. In general, our policy is to recruit employees internally – from the University.
By the way, we also have a legal department. Recently, the Centre won a contest to create a draft of a federal law on storing and archiving data. So now, our lawyers are extremely busy working on it. The project is to be complete by the end of August.
Are there many legal barriers to the use of distributed ledger technology in Russia today?
Presently, there is no direct ban on the use of DLT. Neither is there direct permission. There are no federal laws that conflict with our work on distributed ledgers. However, there are by-laws that may impose some restrictions. To overcome these legal obstacles, we need to collaborate with the authorities and expert councils. This is another task for our legal team. Not long ago, it was due to such negotiations that the government passed legislation to legalise digital polling stations and remote e-voting.
Was your collaboration with the Election Commission of the Leningrad Region related to developing an e-voting system?
In the Leningrad Region, they are still taking the very first steps in digitalising the election procedure. In May, we signed a collaboration agreement with the Election Commission of the Leningrad Region, and now we are developing solutions to some specific elements of the electoral process. At present, project approval is underway. Usually this is the most difficult stage. I would say that writing a computer programme is less difficult. In fact, our programmer accomplished this task in a very short time. Integrating technologies into existing infrastructure and teaching people to work with them is a much more challenging task – it takes 90% of the time and effort.
In what ways can your products facilitate the elections in the Leningrad Region?
They will enable effective interaction between polling stations, external observers and the Election Commission of the Leningrad Region. At the moment, oddly enough, the biggest issue is that the information from the polling stations is not public. The public becomes aware of breaches and scandals, but no one knows about the chain ‘problem – solution – satisfaction’. Officials are extremely concerned and equally interested in making all the observers’ statements public, as well as the responses to them.
Let’s say an observer says: ‘There is ballot stuffing.’ We need to make this statement public. The responses of the people in charge and the actions they took should also be made public. In practical terms, we are developing mobile applications for observers and heads of precinct election commissions. They will enable the recording of violations, the place and time of the infringement, as well as the responses from the authorities online. In addition, the application will enable recording the voter turnout, which will be displayed on a community map.
What other projects are you working on now?
We are working on infrastructure projects, such as network infrastructure testing and virtual code analysis. We also provide blockchain services when the customer does not have a good understanding of the technology, but wants to use it.
Another promising project is called ‘Human Resources Management in the Digital Economy’. It is about digital profiling, which means identifying the educational, occupational, and other characteristics of a person based on the information gathered from a wide range of sources. Importantly, the information is verified by the users themselves. I will explain. Today we produce digital traces everywhere. For instance: a person graduated from the Faculty of Journalism or Philology, underwent special training as a special forces soldier or a demolition expert, and trained in ballroom dancing or something else. Perhaps he would not want to advertise something from this list. Verification is needed so that both he and the educational institution where he studied agree that this or that certificate has been issued.
In brief, DLT allows data to be easily coordinated and managed – for instance, information about graduates’ certificates, diplomas and other achievements. Moreover, the authenticity of the data is easily verifiable. All this is to facilitate creating an ‘ecosystem’ of trust for job applicants, employers and educational institutions.
What are you going to do after the digitalisation of the electoral process and the digital profiling tasks are complete?
We would like to collaborate with doctors, for example, in digitalisation of genetic resources. There is no universal genetic database in the world today, which is likely to become a problem in the future. In general, there are many issues of trust in the medical field, regarding sick leave certificates, for instance, or handling of potent pharmaceuticals. Also, there are many applications for distributed ledgers in agriculture, insurance, and excise taxes. In fact, we are open to suggestions, because blockchain is a cross-cutting solutions technology.
It appears that sooner or later we will all have to figure out what blockchain is ...
Exactly. By the way, this autumn we plan to launch a distributed ledgers course for teachers of informatics and civics – as a professional development programme. The syllabus is quite simple: no higher mathematics, just fundamentals of DLT. At present, the course is being tested and refined at the Academic Gymnasium named after Dmitry Faddeev at St Petersburg University.
And what about those who are not school teachers?
Here at the Distributed Ledger Technologies Centre at St Petersburg University, we develop various types of educational programmes focused on the labour market. We participated in design and development of three master’s degree programmes taught at St Petersburg University: Digital Transformation Based on Distributed Ledgers, Digital Public Administration, and Distributed Computational Technologies.
Besides, we offer non-degree programmes and online courses and we deliver public lectures and seminars. Here are two examples of our topics: ‘Blockchain and Marxism’ or ‘Blockchain for Dummies’. We are willing to talk about blockchain both at the highest and the most basic level. Usually, between 10 and 100 people come to us, and they have different levels of competence.
How can the Centre spark the interest of St Petersburg University students?
We are looking forward to assist students with projects related to DLT. These can be students of any department. If they are worthy to be members of our team, we can hire them or engage them in our projects. Besides, we may help good projects with grant applications. A reference from the Distributed Ledger Technologies Centre at St Petersburg University can make a difference. You may write to us or come in person.
When we analysed student graduation projects in the field of blockchain and DLT, we found out that mathematicians and programmers choose such topics relatively infrequently. By contrast, there are projects written by future doctors, lawyers, economists, political scientists, even astronomers. This means that not only is the topic ‘hyped’, but also that students take an interest in DLT and the areas where it can be applied. I am certain that among them there are many brilliant people with interesting projects. The University has just not heard about them yet.