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Provenance, in one form or another, has been called blockchain's killer app. The use of blockchain as a provenance protocol is a common denominator of all use cases, whether that relates to post-trade financial assets or physical entities such as diamonds or goods on a supply chain.
A blockchain provides a shared database that's transparent and tamper-proof. Currently, the Bitcoin blockchain is being used by a number of companies, such as Everledger, Colu, Ascribe, Monograph, Stampery and Uproov, to prove the identity, authenticity and ownership of all sorts of things.
London-based Provenance is using public blockchains – Bitcoin and Ethereum – to create a mark of trust that spans supply chains from source to consumer. The company, which is headed by computer science PhD Jessi Baker, straddles supply chain and marketing.
Baker told IBTimes: "Provenance is focused on helping great companies to build more trust from customers by being more transparent with how they create their products. As well as the environmental impact, it's about authenticity data – so where was something really made; was it really made by that person.
"We are very concerned with how this data is presented to consumers, and not just end consumers but consumers along the chain, so it could be a retailer buying from a producer, for example. We are very focused on the accessibility of that information, and how it is presented, on product or in-store."
In addition, Provenance will use blockchains to do social good. As well as authenticity, blockchain provides a concrete way of proving something is sourced in a sustainable manner, and also that no slavery exploitation or other poor practices were involved.
Provenance, which started in 2013, is not solely about blockchains; it also works with normal databases and open data, helping companies gather information from their supply chain, such as images with location and all sorts of certifications.
"We have three levels that we are thinking about," said Baker. "The first is the business level: so who is this company? What do they do? Do they pay tax? Then the product level, which is around supply chain mapping. The blockchain component is more item level tracking, so is this particular item what it says it is? Is it really organic? Has it really been made by this company, in this place? So it's a bit of a hybrid," she said.
As far as blockchain technology is concerned, Baker believes in not putting her eggs in one basket, hence both Bitcoin and Ethereum are being employed; the company's latest white paper credits Ethereum chief technology officer (CTO) Dr Gavin Wood.
"We have built proof of concepts on Ethereum. We are doing a pilot on a fish supply chain, going from Indonesia to Japan, and that's using our Ethereum prototype. But we have also done a chain of custody prototype with Omni, on the Bitcoin blockchain."
Baker explained the Bitcoin solution is a basic but robust chain of custody for an item plus some added data. "We can't do much more with that – so we can't do the confirmation and certifications like we can do on Ethereum, and we can't really do any ID transformation or mass transformation, which is what we are doing on Ethereum. But the Bitcoin ecosystem is a lot more developed – you don't have to recompile all the code every five minutes, like we have to do with Ethereum."
At the moment the Bitcoin proof of concept works as a hash of URI, gathering the data to objects. "I think over the next year we will really look to make that more sophisticated, involving things like the standards. The certification standards are written into the smart contracts, but only on a very basic level at this stage."
Baker said that while Provenance has done a fairly large amount of blockchain development in the last year, for now committing to a public blockchain will work fine, as opposed to spinning up some new blockchain from scratch.
"We are not looking to do a crazy amount more just yet because until we have really confirmed the system works as a whole. Although we have really enjoyed working very closely with Ethereum, and we do have some blockchain developers on our team, but we are not trying to massively reinvent the wheel in terms of how blockchain development is done. We are just trying to solve a problem really and blockchain is a means for use to do that better," she said.
First fish on the blockchain
The sustainable fishing pilot Provenance is working on with Ethereum involves the supply chain from single fishermen in boats in Indonesia, right through to Japan's high value sushi traders.
Baker explained: "We work with a small NGO in Indonesia that helps assess the sustainability of the fishermen's operations, and also confirms there is no slavery in their operations. This is working with like one man in a boat.
"We give that one man in a boat a smartphone, and on that smartphone is our application, which allows them to register their catch, see that it meets the quotas imposed by the NGO, which is in turn meeting a standard set by another organisation – the Line and Pole Foundation."
Baker said different types of tags will be used and different boats will use different methods of identifying their fish: some of them will be using just a pen and a tag, others will be using QR codes, some will be using NSC chips. "We are also trying a molecular scanner, which is the crazy wild card."
She said the system will be committing all the data from all of the different catches on to the Ethereum blockchain so the actual fish pass down the chain of custody. Catches will pass through a couple of markets in Indonesia they are working with, on to traders who sell predominantly to restaurants. If the restaurant at the end of the chain wants to show the providence of their fish and show that it's definitely slavery-free, and it's fully sustainable, then they have to cooperate with the digital token.
Towards the end of February, Provenance will announce a string of partnerships, including some big name retailers. Baker said the announcement will include "quite a few specifiers and a couple of group owners and a couple of quite famous restaurants that we are working with on this. Plus a lot more have got in touch, so that's exciting. I think we will be quite busy this year."
When it comes to very big supply chain players like supermarkets, Baker acknowledges that they are already trying to track products and are doing it quite successfully about two tiers away from the retailer. "But when you start to get right down to the grass roots, to origin, raw material – the man in boat or the man in the field – it's being done very poorly. And that's often because it is the guys further down the chain that are funding the whole thing.
"Firstly, they would be very biased if they were gathering data from the field, and they often don't know; they are not connected to those early stage things. So that's why blockchain is also great, it can provide this open database that can be shared by lots of different retailers, rather than just one proprietary system, with one system admin from Walmart, or whatever.
"It can actually be an open platform for doing this stuff, which means that the supermarkets can all access that data, then they can push it into their systems further down the chain – it doesn't necessarily need to be our user interface at all, when you get further down the supply chain, we are just helping make it happen for the first mile."