The Decentralists

Game Changers: Can Decentralization and Blockchain technology help Refugees? with special guest Sadaf Ahmadbeigi, UBC Masters Student

November 24, 2021 Mike Cholod, Henry Karpus & Geoff Glave
The Decentralists
Game Changers: Can Decentralization and Blockchain technology help Refugees? with special guest Sadaf Ahmadbeigi, UBC Masters Student
Show Notes Transcript

Great ideas can be Game Changers and we talk to the people who made them great!

On this episode of The Decentralists we speak with Sadaf Ahmadbeigi, a candidate for Dual Master of Archival Studies and Library and Information Studies, class of 2022. Sadaf is a recipient of the current Association of Research Libraries/Society of American Archivist - Mosaic Award, for their leadership role in gathering and processing oral history accounts from queer Iranian communities.

As a member of the Blockchain Faculty at UBC, Sadaf is exploring ways to guarantee safety and transparency of personal identities and records in an ever-rising number of unstable states and economies worldwide.

Many human rights organizations including the UN, are searching for a way to document identity, possessions and return a sense of dignity and stability to refugees after they’ve fled a broken homeland. Sadaf and The Peer Social Foundation believe this can be accomplished by utilizing the inherent trust, traceability and immutability of blockchain technology.

Sadaf’s whitepaper, Trusted Records in Tapestry Approach: A Background Study to Inform System Design is available for viewing and download from the Peer Social and Manyone websites under a new content category we call Game Changers.

Henry: Hey everyone, it's Henry, Mike, and Jeff of the decentralists, and welcome to our short-form podcast called Game Changers. In-Game Changers, we explore novel, cutting-edge, ideas, and approaches pertaining to the internet, social media, and of course decentralization. This week is regarding using blockchain to help the poor, refugees, and displaced people document their home, life, and property with special guest Sadaf Ahmadbeigi, UBC master student. Sadaf is a candidate for a dual Master of Archival Studies and Library and Information Studies class of 2022, Sadaf is a recipient of the current Association of Research Libraries/ Society of American Archivist Mosaic Award, for their leadership role in gathering and processing oral history accounts from square Iranian communities.

As a member of the Blockchain Faculty at UBC, Sadaf is exploring ways to guarantee the safety and transparency of personal identities and records in an ever-rising number of unstable states and economies worldwide. Many human rights organizations, including the UN, are searching for a way to document identity possessions and return a sense of dignity and stability to refugees after they fled a broken Homeland. Sadaf and the Pure Social Foundation, the nonprofit division of Many One, believe this can be accomplished by using the inherent trust, traceability, and immutability of blockchain technology. Sadaf's background in middle Eastern studies and education lead them to realize that significant work and research needs to be done to educate vulnerable communities about blockchain technologies.

Furthermore, easy-to-use decentralized apps must be created so that displaced people can provide irrefutable documentation, once they're out of harm's way. Sadaf's final research report, Trusted Records in Tapestry Approach, a background study to inform system design, is available for viewing and download from the Peer Social and Many One websites, under a new content category we call Game Changers. Sadaf, welcome to The Decentralist. 

Sadaf: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me 

Henry: Now, you're not just your average master's student, you're also a member of the Blockchain Faculty at UBC. So, what got you interested in blockchain?

Sadaf: Well, Dr. Victoria Lemieux who runs the Blockchain pathway at UBC, was one of my very first professors at UBC. So, the class was about record keeping and our final assignment was to work on a topic that's related to record-keeping. At the same time, I was invited to a conference for Middle Eastern studies and libraries, and I learned about the case of Iraq records. So, after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, some of the records that belonged to the bath party were collected, and exported, and transferred to Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Now, to this day, you may not know that records of ours still belong to the Victor, without consideration of archival bond, which is the context that gives records meaning. And without consideration of people whose records were taken and without considering the vast number of records that get destroyed in the process.

Henry: Oh yeah, right.

Sadaf: So, I wrote about that and I wrote about the injustice that was done to Iraqi people, not only their land was destroyed, but their records were taken from them. And, it doesn't seem like they were... They will never get them back. So, I was telling Dr. Lemieux about this, Vicky, and she said that there is a blockchain graduate pathway at UBC, and I might be interested in that. Because, technology, emerging technology like that could help people take ownership of their own records, and that was very attractive to me.

Geoff: Sadaf, could you talk about those own records for a moment? I know for a lot of Canadians, for example, Americans, people in the UK, Europe, have this notion of land title registry, they have notions of various records that document your life. But when you're talking about these individuals, how is it different?

Sadaf: Are you asking about Iraqi records? Or are you asking about in general the land titles worldwide?

 Geoff: Well, sure. We can talk specifically about the Iraqis, but I think in general, your research applied to all types of people who may be at risk of being displaced, or have been displaced, have found themselves as refugees, and need to determine what is theirs.

 Sadaf: Yeah, exactly! So, a lot of times people, when it comes to land titles, a lot of people just don't have them. Like their government body, their government system doesn't give them land titles, and a lot of time it's because they don't have enough workforce to create those land titles. So, if you look at Africa, for example, there are statistics that show more than half of people live without land titles, and this is even before a war, before any atrocities. But, what I was really interested in was when you live in a country, you're living your life and all of a sudden something happens, like what we just saw with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and you have to flee, like, there is no other way, you have to get your people and then leave and flee.

 And you may not necessarily have time to gather all of your data or documentation, or it might be the last thing on your mind to take your land title from, I don't know, but you might keep your land title. But... So, they leave their country, they become displaced or refugees and they might live in camps, they need help with food, with identities, and all of that. So, there has been recent work towards creating digital identities for these kinds of situations. But, when it comes to land title, the process is a little bit more convoluted, and the reason for that is when atrocities end and people want to come back to their countries, and statistics shows that a lot of people do want to come back to their own country and...

 Michael: Yeah, like the majority.

 Sadaf: Majority, they'd like to claim their lands back, because that's where they feel like they belong.

Henry: You mean after years, right?

Sadaf: And rightly so. Yeah, after years they might want to come back. So, when that happens, there is no way or very little documentation that might show that these people actually have the right to such... In such land. Like, there's no way for them to show that this is actually my land and it was taken from me or I fled, and I don't have any way to show that this is my land.

 Henry: And you're saying, Sadaf, that even if those records did exist over the last several years, it could have been all destroyed anyway?

 Sadaf: The records could be destroyed. And also, we should not forget that atrocities happened because some sort of dictator is taking over your life.

 Henry: Right, they don't care.

 Sadaf: And those become governing bodies who might forge land titles. So, in their situations that written document is actually less valid than oral testimony, and that is where I worked on, what I worked on in Summer.

 Henry: It's a brilliant idea, Sadaf, it's brilliant.

 Michael: And I agree, so Sadaf, I remember when we first started talking about the... Your kind of intersection of archival science and blockchain. You talk about the Iraqi example, where the... You know in fact the records are not there anymore.

 Sadaf: Yeah.

 Michael: And they're not coming back. And so, one of the things that we talked about was the capability of blockchain by its distributed nature. Where the... Kind of the control, theoretically, the control levers of the technology are not in the hands of any one entity. And we talked about taking it to the step where you have this group of people who are probably in some... In the most horrible situation imaginable, short of probably actual death, and blockchain provided a glimmer of hope to allow these people to establish, say, identity and ownership of their home, life, property, assets, everything. So, what was your goal when you came into this internship, this last summer? What were you looking to find out? What were you looking to identify? In terms of blockchain and a solution for these people.

 Sadaf: So, when I was coming to this place, I thought that I would do an analysis on the tapestry system. And tapestry system was proposed by many different organizations, including New America, for land repatriation, using data generated in our everyday lives, instead of relying on land titles, so that is basically the basics of the tapestry.

Michael: That's the concept?

 Sadaf: That's the concept. And, I thought, and you thought, everybody thought that there was some system in place, something that is built and we wanted to evaluate it, and we wanted to compare to both archival definition of trustworthiness and also Many One's understanding of self-sovereign. We had many conversations about what we think self-sovereign is and what other companies think self-sovereign is. I was also interested in the juridical system, in which these systems would need to work. I wanted to know what kind of law applies to these because we are looking for admissibility of records, and for that, we needed to have a juridical system.

 So, I thought that I'm coming into a place with a system already designed, and my work was to analyze it, my job was to analyze it. And, I wanted your help with analyzing that.

Michael: Sure.

Sadaf: Especially from the perspective of the technical perspective of it. But, what we realized was that there is no system, yet. There is no technological system for this yet, if there was, if a technical feature of tapestry is built, it wasn't even available to me for analysis.

Michael: Right. And one of the other things I remember you saying, Sadaf, that was, it became intuitive after we first talked about it, was, the fact that these people, displaced refugees, they're in a camp, or they're on their way to one, or they're fleeing violence and other things, they trust literally nobody.

Sadaf: Yeah.

Michael: I mean, they don't trust the UN organizations, they sure as heck don't trust their government. So this kind of idea of a central authority that comes up and says, trust me, is basically not going to fly with these folks.

Sadaf: Yeah. 

Michael: You know what I mean? I mean, seriously, right? Because, like, even look at just these simple examples, you talked about Afghanistan and I don't know if you guys saw these reports where the kind of the Taliban thing was so quick that they left like biometric databases.

Henry: Yes.

Michael: And They literally had a biometric database of every single person who helped out the Americans or the Allies. And they left the computers there, because they were like, I'm out of here. So you can understand how people don't trust anybody, and so, what was it about the approach that we were kind of talking to this whole thing, that intrigued you to think of a better kind of architecture to help these people?

Sadaf: We talked a lot with you, Michael, about self-sovereign and what true self-sovereign is. And, what I really loved about working with you guys is that there was an understanding of how important this use case is, there is an understanding of how important trust is, and how, like you just said, there is very little trust in populations that are in this situation. And, there was also this other understanding between us that your data needs to be owned by you, and I know that you are so focused on this and you want this so much that I knew that if... That I knew that at least I can trust you.

Michael: Oh, that's nice.

Sadaf: So, I think that we were on the same page when we talked about ownership of data and ownership of personal records, so, that was a big one. The other thing was that I realized that there is no one juridical system, so I didn't need to go talk to, I don't know, the Iraqi government or different kinds of government, because there is another body of literature called transitional justice. That is giving guidelines, that is guiding this land repatriation process, and what they need is an app, something that is very accessible, something that can communicate to people with different languages, something that does not require trust to a central government or central governing body.

 And I knew from the weekly discussions that we had, or you guys had, and we listened as interns, that was something that you were working on, that was something that you were passionate about. So, then it became my mission to make this connection between you and people who work on transitional justice, because of this... As they told me, this is a technology that they need yesterday, this is a technology that they don't have money for. So they're looking for someone to both understand how important trust is, because, when you talk to people who work on transitional justice, they tell you that people don't even trust the UN as you said. Because they believe that if UN owns their... Recorder owns their data, they will sell it to the government who they fled from, or something like that.

Michael: Right.

Henry: Oh yeah. And it would be centralized as well.

Sadaf: So, there are all these worries. So, it's not like that, blockchain is something that is known as a trust machine, but trust here is a lot more important, I think because your life is depending on it.

Michael: Right. So, basically, at the end of the day, Sadaf, that is... Like, thank you for all the good words. I mean, the truth of the matter is, this is almost... I remember when I first read the draft of your final report, which we're going to... People can download and read and I encourage them to do it because this is important. What was really... It occurred to me, which is almost the perfect kind of banner use case for what we've been talking about for years.

Sadaf: Exactly!

Michael: Is this idea that... So you have these people in a situation where they have no government authority, there's maybe no legitimate authority period, there are no records, whether that means they didn't exist in the first place, or they just got blown up, or intentionally destroyed when people left their houses, no passports, no driver's licenses, no birth certificates, no university degrees, none of this.

Sadaf: And a lot of forgeries.

 Michael: Exactly! And a lot of forgeries and every... The moment you leave, and the moment you... Well, not just forgeries, the moment one person gets kind of run out of their house, somebody else moves in and they create a new record that says, it's my house. So, it was one of these things where part of what we've been talking about is this idea that we should all be the owners and kind of the creators and be responsible stewards for our own identity. And in this circumstance, for somebody who's displaced or a refugee, identity becomes this... Kind of more of a social construct, which is kind of what it is anyway. But, you're taking, you want to be able to tell somebody who has zero trust in anything that...

But they still know that they need to be able to tell people, I exist, I have a family, I've had atrocities committed against me, I've had my property taken away from me, I've had my livelihood taken away from me and they need to be able to compile that information in one place, and then kind of share it from their own... With their own control. And it was almost like a perfect use case, so I guess it's we come out of this thing and it looks like we're going to build it.

Henry: Yeah, that's incredible!

Sadaf: Yes, I'm so excited.

Michael: I mean, it's... It would be... At the of the day, I've said this to the rest of the gang before, there's working with software and all this other stuff is very cool, and talking on the bleeding edge of decentralization and blockchain is very cool, but, there's a lot of focus in this world on crypto and tokens, and how much is this worth? And all this other stuff, whereas, this is the perfect use case to me, for why the internet needs to decentralize and why we need to decentralize identity and access.

Henry: Perfect application.

Michael: Exactly! If you cannot decentralize identity and access, then how can you tell anybody they can trust anything?

Sadaf: Exactly! And I think we all here, live in countries that we sort of, kind of trust our governments to do the right things, it's vastly different when you know that your government is out there to get new. So, that's why I think that becomes a really good use case for decentralized technology and self-sovereign technology.

Henry: Absolutely! Sadaf, I have to thank you for joining us here on The Decentralist and our ideas program, and also for the fact that you were the Genesis of this idea because it's actually... We're going to build this and if we can do it right, we could literally change the world and maybe increase the level of justice in a certain area, so, I thank you for joining us.

Sadaf: Thank you for having me.

Michael: Thanks Sadaf, thanks for everything.

Geoff: Thank you so much.