What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘blockchain’? Nothing? How about bitcoin or cryptocurrency? Yes, that shady currency which helps you do illegal transactions on the deep web, right? Wrong.
Crypto is simply an application of the wider blockchain technology; a kind of an open ledger that is updated continuously, can’t be altered and is both transparent and verifiable. That’s a lot of words right there, I know, but there is a good reason. Because there’s a new startup in town that is offering blockchain-based solutions to maintaining and recording educational certificates.
Started by NED students as a final-year project, BlockShift Technologies is a Karachi-based startup that claims to use blockchain to solve all the hassles in degree issuance, attestation and verification process. Right after graduation, they got incubated at the Nest I/O in the seventh batch.
So how does it work? Through their product EdCerts (educational certificates), they claim to provide academic records in a manner which will be instantly verifiable, transparent and cannot be manipulated. The way it works is that the participating institutions, where their blockchain solution is implemented, awards certificates to students via a portal -- called the student wallet -- from where students can access their documents.
But why not just go for simple digitisation? Because this, in addition to speeding up the entire process, directly attempts to curb counterfeit degrees through instant verification. Anyone with that URL can view the entire academic history of the student on each stage (issuance, attestation and verification) of the process. Sorry Mr Raisani, any degree won’t be a degree after all.
What else? They also claim to streamline the process for Pakistani students wishing to go abroad and have to wait months for issuance and attestation processes.
Doesn’t that sound too unrealistic in a country where we haven’t achieved a simple digitisation and the internet access remains limited to less than 20 per cent of the population? Isn’t it too futuristic? To Khurram Adhami, the CEO, not that much. “It’s a hard sell, for sure. But I don’t see why, like everything else, Pakistan has to be a follower here as well. In this age of globalisation, anyone can be a leader in tech,” says he, adding “in fact, if you see where all blockchain’s implementation has fared well, you will find small countries leading the charts.”
But why would any business in its right mind actually enter an arena that no one is even aware of? Neither the consumers, definitely not the investors and in some cases, not even the techies themselves. Why not just hop on the crypto bandwagon and make some money out of it? “That was never the idea. It never appealed to us. We wanted to come up with a solution to an existing problem and that we found in blockchain,” CTO Obaid explains.
Sure, that sounds all impactful and stuff but what about the money? Well, there is the one-time implementation fees they plan to charge the participating institutions. But that can’t be a sustainable model, right? You’re right, it isn’t. “Once the system is in place and things are running, we will charge a per-verification fee to the student for each request, just like universities do,” Khurram explains.
While the idea is appealing, is it really practical? Has there been any progress? “We have developed the proof-of-concept and the entire application can be used on-demand. But since we have hosted on Amazon web server, we can’t run it 24/7 because of the cost,” Khurram tells Dawn.
The proof-of-concept includes an admin portal (to be run by the university) which awards the documents, a student wallet where these documents are stored to be accessed by the student and a public blockchain explorer where these records are stored publicly (with high encryption and no sharing of personal details), he adds.
Currently in talks with their alma mater, they are looking forward to run a pilot study for at least one batch from one of the departments. That will allow the duo to identify any loopholes with the system as well as the possible additions. “We haven’t actively approached other universities yet because we want to see how it goes first and since we are familiar with each stage of the process at NED, it’d be a great testing ground,” Obaid says. Until then, they are also bootstrapping themselves.
Like many young techies, Khurram too has sought inspiration from Indian startups which he sees as a good blueprint for Pakistan. “India-based Digilocker actually gave us an insightful lead into the blockchain technology when we were working on our final-year project. Then you have RecordsKeeper which basically does what we offer for all sorts of records,” he says.
For many, the technology might seem too advanced, especially for Pakistan. But the industry has been moving towards this. With MIT (through BlockCerts) and other established names penetrating the market, credibility will soon follow and these two young engineers are betting on that wave to hit home as well.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2018