Travel taught me why the world needs blockchain

Travel taught me why the world needs blockchain

I’ve visited 25 countries and lived on three continents. Travel has taught me why the world needs blockchain. Blockchain is the technology that underpins bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It allows an exchange of value between two people anywhere in the world, without a middle man (like a bank or a third party like PayPal). Because of the decentralized nature of blockchain, it can’t get hacked the way a traditional financial institution or corporation can get attacked. That’s because a blockchain is supported by an anonymous network of computers in many different locations, rather than a server in one single location.
Another important feature of blockchain is that it is designed to be tamper-proof. I won’t get into a complicated explanation of why that is. A simplified version goes like this: the consensus mechanisms within a blockchain mean that if changes are made to any input in the blockchain, it will throw all the data off throughout the digital ledger. Any amendments will be super evident throughout the whole system and can be caught quickly and easily.
So back to the thrust of this article, which is that my wanderlust is part of the reason I’m convinced the world needs blockchain technology.

sari-sari store Philippines Bulalon

A sari-sari store in the Philippines/Courtesy Brian Evans

The millions of unbanked in the Philippines

I was born in the Philippines, in Makati, which is part of the capital city of Metro Manila. It’s a beautiful, vibrant country filled with intelligent, entrepreneurial people. A lot of people. We’re talking about a population of more than 100 million, spread out over about 7,100 small islands. It boasts an impressive literacy rate of 97% (people aged 10 years old and up) and because English is an official language, the Philippines is uniquely positioned to be a leader in Asia, if not the world. Yet it is a third-world country.

I understand that there are many reasons for this, including rampant corruption and overpopulation. But there’s something else at play here too. Nearly 90% of people in the Philippines don’t have a bank account. And yet about a third of the population has a cell phone. Because the ranks of the unbanked are huge, that means that so many intelligent, hard-working Filipinos ‘own’ property or a business that isn’t recorded anywhere. That makes it difficult to keep that property from being seized by someone else (government, shady operators, etc.). Leveraging the value of a small business to be able to grow it isn’t an option. Without the ability to formally quantify who the property or business belongs to makes keeping it in the family, or handing the reins to a designated third party, a challenge. Access to traditional banking services (micro-loans, estate planning, etc) would be a game-changer for millions of Filipinos. All you need is a smartphone, access to the internet and some tech savvy. Therein lies the disruptive potential of blockchain technology.

Quartier Latin Paris France Pantheon

My view of the Latin quarter in Paris, France

Getting schooled

One of my most memorable semesters was the one I spent at a French university in Paris (you can find out which one by checking out my LinkedIn profile, but I’m not going to name it here). Even though I’d made arrangements to secure my spot from Canada, I was still required to register in person when I arrived in France. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.

I showed up and waited in long lineups over three days. Twice I was told they couldn’t locate my information. And when I presented a printout of my school records from Carleton University in Ottawa, there was a lot of confusion about the documents which were in English and were, back in 2000, on paper and could have been forged.

Given the immutability and security blockchain technology can provide, it’s easy to see how this could be used for educational documents, health records, patents, etc. There are already big name companies like Sony and IBM working on this kind of encrypted digital student record application for blockchain technology. It could eventually be used to track, manage and securely share graduation certificates, transcripts, lab marks and attendance.

I like to think that blockchain technology could have made my sign-up process smoother, more streamlined and, from the admitting university’s point of view, more reliable. Those were three days I could have spent sightseeing, enjoying perfect coffee, smoking cigarillos and meeting people in Paris, instead of waiting in line-ups, held up by red tape and inefficiencies.

Up close and personal with the Greek debt crisis

Years ago, my husband and I toured around Greece with some American friends that we made along the way. At the time, the European debt crisis and Greece’s sticky situation as one of the PIG (or PIIG) nations, dominated the headlines.

We knew, ahead of time that there was a daily limit on how much cash locals could withdraw from ATMs. Technically, these limits didn’t apply to foreigners like us, but the reality is that many of the ATMs we came across had run out of money.

ATM Santorini Greece Mykonos

Picturesque ATM in Santorini, Greece

That wasn’t supposed be an issue because we were armed with plastic but it turns out that wasn’t enough. Somehow, I forgot my debit card PIN (I blame the hot sun in Mykonos, the booze and a phenomenon I call ‘vacation brain’). By my third attempt to type it into an ATM, the machine’s screen politely informed me that my card had been locked.

In what turned out to be terribly unfortunate timing, my husband’s credit card was deactivated that evening because Visa says it was compromised back in Canada. Someone had stolen my husband’s digital information and had used it to buy $1,000 worth of beer in rural Ontario.

Luckily, we had enough euros to last us until Visa sent my husband a replacement card. Fortunately, he wasn’t on the hook for those purchases. It is worth noting though, that if he’d been carrying crypto assets in a digital wallet on a properly secured smartphone (or computer), it would have presented a real challenge to anyone trying to steal his funds.

This experience made me very aware of how useful it would have been to have another, global, portable, digital currency option. My conversations with the locals reinforced this belief. The Greeks I spoke with had been dealing with several years of successive recessions and economic and political uncertainty loomed large. Many people were actually stuffing cash under their mattress as an emergency fund. I saw, firsthand, a great use case for blockchain technology and for cryptocurrency, because almost anything is better than keeping cash stored under a mattress.

Getting carried away with baggage

My final example will resonate with anyone who has experienced a phenomenon known as lost or missing luggage. Like the time my friends and I planned a snowboarding trip out West and we arrived, but our snowboards and gear did not. We waited two days (out of a three-day vacation) for the airline to track down our stuff and ship it to our AirBnB. To say that we were disappointed would be an understatement. I won’t say the whole vacation was a bust because we still had a wonderful time. But without our snowboards, the main purpose of the trip was hijacked.

Stuey's slope powder snowboarding winter whistler British Columbia

Powder day in Whistler, British Columbia/Courtesy Ruth Hartnup

I know that luggage loss rates are currently at historic lows, but I would argue that with more people travelling more often, the chances of this happening to you, as an individual, have increased. The tantalizing possibility that blockchain technology offers is a perfect, nearly error-free tracking system so you can see, in real-time where your luggage is, and where it’s been. To this day, I don’t know if our snowboards somehow took a detour and ended up in Brazil. Blockchain technology could clear up that mystery.

If you add in smart contract technology (which the Ethereum blockchain enables), airlines could even design a system that automatically notifies you if your luggage has been delayed and compensates you for it. The transparency and accountability would be a huge boon to travelers and airlines alike.

These are just a few of the reasons why my travel experiences have taught me why the world needs blockchain. If you live in a country with a robust and inclusive financial system, minimal red tape delays and is generally home to businesses and institutions that run smoothly and efficiently, then the need for blockchain technology may not seem as obvious. But in other parts of the world, where economic instability and inequality are rampant, the need for cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology is glaring.

In another blog post, I will explain how blockchain technology is the missing link even in North America, and how it can solve problems that the internet and the digital revolution haven’t yet been able to.

All it takes… Is a Leap of faith

Leap Of Faith Peter OrtnerIf you know me, or follow my articles and musings on social media (TwitterInstagram) then you know that I’ve had cryptocurrencies on the brain a lot lately.  That’s why, when opportunity knocked, in the form of Canada’s leading blockchain company, I decided to answer… with a resounding yes.

It wasn’t an easy decision because it means saying goodbye to my wonderful career in journalism.  That’s a big ask, and I only had a few days to make this life-changing decision. So I did a lot of soul-searching. Luckily, I was on vacation at the time. In Cancun, Mexico, to be exact. One thing I found tremendously helpful was learning a new skill… Which came in the form of the flying trapeze.

As its name suggests, it involves doing the closest thing I’ve tried to flying. Sure, you have a harness, a safety net beneath you and steady hands to hold you until you’re ready. But it was a big stretch for me to step off the platform onto… nothing. Nothing at all. It took a leap of faith.

Trapeze split sky upside down

Combine that with my intense fear of heights, and you have a recipe for disaster. Except that it wasn’t. It was uplifting, exciting and empowering. I learned to get out of my head and focus on the task ahead. It forced my body and my brain to get on the same page in a way that regular everyday life doesn’t always require. It gave me clarity, and the courage to say ‘yes’ to another big adventure.

I have no idea what the future holds for me, and for my new company, Decentral. I know that its founder is the man who founded the Ethereum blockchain. I’m really excited about their main product, which is the Jaxx cryptocurrency wallet. As their new Content and Communications Lead, I’m going to help them build something incredible. We’re going to grow a community, share inspiring stories and make some memories along the way. The sky’s the limit.

Take A Chance


Expert warns outsized male interest in cryptocurrencies a ‘red flag’

The content that I create gets a lot of attention, but the analysis piece (about what the gender divide in the crypto community may signal) that I wrote for CBC takes the cake (with the high school student betting on ethereum a close second and the immigration explainer video coming in third). Some people applauded this fresh take, and rejoiced that credible people were talking about the giant pink elephant in the room.Bitcoin boys club

Others trolled me online for weeks. Accusing me of all kinds of things that I won’t repeat. Some had valid arguments. Others were simply outraged and spewing hateful rubbish at me. The reaction came from across Canada as well as specific U.S. states (Texas, Florida, New York and California).

I invite you to read it, all of it (from start to finish because there’s a twist at the very end) and do some research, and come to your own conclusions (feel free to comment below or reach out to me respectfully on social media). Analysis pieces are meant to spark discussion about topics that might otherwise get glossed over. I believe that there is a process to figuring things out, and an important part of the process must be a willingness to listen.

High school student makes fortune betting on cryptocurrency (no, not bitcoin)

18-year old Eddy Zillan is a high school senior with big dreams, and big accomplishments. He’s already made a pile of money betting on ether, one of the world’s most popular cryptocurrencies (it powers the Ethereum blockchain). Some have described it as bitcoin’s ‘smarter’ cousin.

Zillan Lede Photo

His incredible journey began at age 15. He had $12,000 US (birthday gifts and money from his part-time job) and he decided to invest it. So he talked to people and did a lot of research. This led him to Ethereum, which he felt had a lot of potential. So he bought a lot of ether, and a little bitcoin too. There was something about these cryptocurrencies that appealed to him.

Fast-forward to 2017, which was a banner year for both ether and bitcoin and, by extension, for Eddy Zillan too. He has since started up his own cryptocurrency company, but he’s pragmatic and says he remains committed to his goal of becoming an orthodontist. You can read Eddy’s (and Ethereum’s) story here.

Can’t stop fiddling with your phone? There’s an app for that.

It’s no secret that our phones are distracting. But recent data suggests that just having them within arm’s reach can negatively impact your ability to concentrate. That’s why finding a way to ‘disconnect’ and pay attention to what’s happening in the classroom is really important.

There’s an interesting Canadian company that came up with an app called Flipd that gently reminds students to pay attention in class.

It’s a simple concept that has caught on South of the border and is spreading across Canada. Read my piece on how Flipd works and how it started out (hint: it was originally designed for parents).

Is immigration good or bad for an economy?

A lot of research went into this YouTube explainer I co-produced and hosted about whether immigration is good or bad for an economy. It was part of my job, so I was happy to look into it. The fact that I’m an immigrant (I was born in the Philippines and lived in Switzerland before coming to Canada at age 4) intensified my curiosity.

As I sifted through articles about Trump’s immigration ban, asylum seekers coming to Canada and the influx of Syrian refugees, I noted some nasty comments posted. There was a common thread running through them. A perception that immigrants are a drain on the system, job stealers… basically economy ruiners. So I set out to find out the truth. What I discovered was, at times surprising, at times reassuring.

I invite you to have a look and a listen, and judge for yourself in this CBC explainer video Is Immigration Good Or Bad For An Economy?

What does a scientist look like?

Women in lab

Increasing diversity in the STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) fields is urgent because of the implications for the Canadian economy (read: all of us and our collective future), according to a recent report from Ryerson University.  It warns that the ‘old boys club’ of like-minded problem solvers which are the current status quo, could hamper Canada’s ability to prosper, innovate and compete globally. It’s a big deal.

Ryerson’s Dean of Science calls out what she describes as a “bro culture” for keeping women away from STEM and for, perhaps, limiting women once they’re in. This culture feeds on stereotypes. Things as simple as a preconceived notion about what, for example, a scientist looks like.

Ana Sofia Barrows knows about this issue firsthand. She has a degree in medical physics, and she’s been harassed by strangers online for not ‘looking’ or ‘acting’ like a scientist. What does that even mean? You can read my CBC article for the full story on the importance of fighting gender stereotypes.


Changing the convo around what a tech career is…. And isn’t

A career in ‘tech’ isn’t what it used to be. Because technology is, well, everything. Tech permeates every aspect of our lives… from our phones (which have become our camera/library/calendar/photo album/GPS) to our connected homes.

Tech careers can be fulfilling, and well-paying. Yet Canadian girls and women aren’t penetrating the ranks of the tech workforce, even though they are increasingly graduating with degrees in science, tech, engineering and math. It doesn’t compute.

During my research, the experts I spoke with suggest there are myths that persist. About what ‘tech’ is… and what it isn’t. And those myths need to be shattered early on, when young women are figuring out what to be when they grow up.

Have a gander at my CBC article about why a career in tech isn’t just for gamers and AI geeks (note: as a fellow geek, I use the term with great affection) Industry Leaders Tell Women Tech Careers Aren’t Just For Gamers

Food fight

kid TVThe debate over how best to protect kids from an onslaught of ads selling junk food is a tricky one, and one that Health Canada is wading into. Right now in Canada, advertising is an industry that regulates itself. The exception is the province of Quebec.

For more on this brewing food fight and the different cases made by health advocates and the advertisers, take a look at my article on CBC News.

Boy eating beef chili with taco chips chocolate milk and pudding


The tech trap

online imagesThe power that Big Tech wields on the way that we view the world, and the way that we behave is something that design ethicists are just starting to figure out.

Among them is former Google designer and researcher James Williams. He won the Nine Dots prize and $100,000 to write a book about how technology has fundamentally changed the way we discuss politics online.

Williams is also the co-founder of Time Well Spent, whose raison d’être is to protect us from, as the campaign puts it, technology “hijacking our brains.” Check out my CBC News piece about the tech trap.