Provenance on the blockchain: Update from Devcon2

Tea leaves at Qiujiang Road in Shanghai: 2016’s host city for Devcon2.

Our own blockchain expert, Thibaut Schaeffer, gives a round-up of his experience at this year’s Shanghai-based Ethereum Developer Conference, addressing some of the questions the blockchain community have about our work on the traceability of products and their corresponding claims and certifications.

Two weeks ago, I went to Shanghai to take part in Devcon2: the third installment of an annual conference gathering members of the Ethereum community. The Ethereum Foundation promotes and supports the research, development and education for producing next-generation decentralized applications (dapps), with the aim of building a more accessible and more trustworthy Internet.

This was without a doubt the best tech conference I have been to, and many have already relayed the highlights of those three busy days. After such an intense week, and as I have discussed with many in Shanghai, we thought we would share a bit more of where we stand in cryptoland, and what direction we hope to take in the months to come.

The Ethereum Developer Conference in session.

Provenance since Devcon1

At Provenance, we are proud to be among the first few projects to pioneer non-financial applications on the blockchain, apply blockchains to supply chains and exploit the potential of transparency through Ethereum. We presented our work and plans at Devcon0 (2014) and Devcon1 (2015), back when most, if not all of the Ethereum community could still fit in one venue. Representing Provenance at Devcon2 was a very special moment for me as a member of the community and Provenance contributor. The feedback I got could be put into three categories of similar size:

“What is Provenance?”
As the Ethereum community has grown rapidly, many people had never heard of Provenance and its efforts to bring brand trust through transparency and traceability. While we don’t expect everyone in the community to be familiar with what we’re doing, I would argue that this was not the case a mere year ago. This is a sign that the Ethereum community is growing with ever more projects to be interested in, which is great. An ecosystem is forming.

“Is Provenance still doing blockchain?”
We have been putting a lot of effort into our platform with a strong focus on user experience and an obsession to solve our customers’ needs. From day one Provenance was about solving a problem: How can we make supply chains more transparent. We exist to enable informed, more sustainable purchasing decisions along the supply chain. Initially, we focused on building the tools producers and retailers need to easily open up information about their products and businesses in an engaging format. We recognise that our platform will be more powerful, inclusive and impactful if we are not the trusted third party brokering this data – we don’t want to be a Facebook for products. Hence, we have been iterating a blockchain-based system for key information and material tracking, and are cautiously linking our application with Ethereum. This means that blockchain is not at the core of our “plug and play” offering for businesses as of today. We appreciate the amazing progress the Ethereum ecosystem has shown in terms of user experience (shout out to the Metamask and uPort teams, as well as everyone working on off-chain computing). Nonetheless, we think more work and time is needed to enable us to open our asset tracking tools to the general public.

“I haven’t heard from Provenance in a while”
This last reaction is somewhat close to the previous one. When discussing further, the obvious reason why some feel this way is that most of our communication has not been targeted at the blockchain community. Looking back at this past year, we have focused on our customers and partners: retailers, producers, certifiers and consumers, as demonstrated by our work on socially-responsible Indonesian tuna, featured here and here. We could obviously have reached out more to the Ethereum community, and taking part in Devcon2 was a first step to make it right. If you are interested in the problem we are solving and keen to have regular updates please follow our tech team here. We are committed to contributing to the Ethereum community as much as we can.

Next Steps

Thanks to the pilots we have conducted in the past months, with partners including Humanity United and Co-op, we are able to learn more about the real world of supply chains, and build a tracking platform based on the Ethereum public blockchain. More details on the first steps of this work can be found here.

Our vision is to provide a public infrastructure for tracking products and their key claims and certifications. Therefore, the direction we are taking on the technical side is to turn most of our current system into an open protocol. We hope to be able to make a few announcements on this before the end of this year.

With Devcon3 less than a year away, we cannot wait for the community to get together again and learn of new developments. As for Provenance, we look forward to having many new updates to share.

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Thibaut Schaeffer on the Taigong Ferry Line.