How the technology that powers crypto is being used for more than money

From powering cryptocurrencies like bitcoin to digital assets like non-fungible tokens (NFTs), it seems as though the blockchain technology is everywhere.

Blockchain is a decentralized digital ledger that stores and records data, and is best known for facilitating transactions for digital currencies such as bitcoin.

It also has many people hoping to get rich, by investing in digital assets like GIFs and artworks — some of which sell for millions, like the digital art Everydays: the First 5,000 Days by American artist Beeple, which sold for $69.3 million U.S. in 2021. The technology has also been criticized for its harmful environmental impact.

But investors and celebrities are not the only ones investing in the technology or the cryptocurrencies that blockchain enables.

In B.C., Indigenous artists are leveraging blockchain to secure their art, while researchers are studying how the technology can better protect personal health information.

Indigenous NFT art

In an airy studio in Burnaby, B.C., artist David Fierro of the Okanagan Nation creates drums using traditional hides, like those of elk, and acrylic paint that seems to come alive under black light.

But the drums, part of the 400 Drums project, aren’t made to be sold as they are. Once done, the instrument is photographed and sold as a non-fungible token or NFT.

An NFT is a digital asset that typically exists on the Ethereum blockchain, and stores unique data that includes a record of ownership and transactions. NFTs cannot be replicated, and unlike cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, each NFT has a unique value.

That unique nature is one of the reasons NFTs appeal to Indigenous artists like Fierro, as the theft, replication and sales of inauthentic Indigenous art remains a major problem, even at major galleries.

Indigenous artist David Fierro of the Okanagan Nation creates these handmade drums, which are photographed and turned into NFTs. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The ability to record and verify the authenticity of an artwork through blockchain is also appealing to Tamara Goddard, Fierro’s business partner. Goddard is the head of 400 Drums, a campaign supporting Indigenous creators harnessing online platforms to share teachings and stories.

Fierro and Goddard plan to sell the NFTs on the OpenSea platform for 1 ether — the cryptocurrency of the Ethereum blockchain — which is roughly equivalent to $4,200.

The funds will support initiatives for Indigenous youth and artists, including media training and workshops for starting their own NFT projects.

“Our art is our value, our art is our legal culture. We feel that as Indigenous peoples, we need to enter this space to preserve the authentic nature of art as a value, art as money,” said Goddard, who is of the Saulteau First Nation.

“It’s a very good fit for us because we believe that the NFT, even though it’s a digital asset that you’re holding, will take on a monetary value and grow in value as does all of our Indigenous art.”

Securing health data

At the University of British Columbia’s school of information, research is also being conducted on how the technology can help protect health information.

Victoria Lemieux, associate professor of archival science and one of the few women in the world leading a research lab focused on blockchain, is working on a “personal health wallet,” where health information is securely stored on a person’s smartphone using blockchain.

Victoria Lemieux is researching how blockchain technology could be used to secure personal health information on a smartphone. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The technology, she says, is more secure than current information systems because it does not rely on typical security measures like passwords, and it decentralizes information unlike shared third-party services like the cloud.

This means information on the blockchain is less vulnerable to hackers that may want to view or change any of that data, she says.

“They are not gaining access to this large pool of data that they can hold for ransom,” she said. “They have to work harder to get smaller bits of information.”

The health wallet she’s working on will allow people to share health information with a doctor securely and efficiently, she says, and allow people to keep their data from being used for research purposes.

“If you’ve had, for example, some kind of a transplant, you’ll have several different doctors, you’ll have pharmacists and so on. All of that information needs to be brought together to help the care team look after you effectively, but it’s very siloed right now,” she said.

“It’s all part of this trend to empower people to control their data, take power away from platforms that have tended to hoover up our data without asking.”

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