Blockchain for education in South Africa: Q&A with Joyce Zhang from ixo and Amply

Blockchain has become one of those buzzwords that commands attention and carries a powerful social glow, yet in the likes of similar buzzwords that have attained such a prized status, it has lost much of its meaning. Blockchain has become a catchall term for just about any digital ledger system regardless of crucial variations in its design. With so many blockchain projects ranging from social impact initiatives to opportunistic marketing ploys, it can be difficult to discern which projects hold real potential. For this reason, here's a deep dive on blockchain applications in our niche: social impact.

When you donate money to a charity or NGO, do you get to track how your contributions are being spent and the outcomes of that spending? Probably not. This is not just because some organizations view that level of granular impact assessment as unnecessary, but also because conducting impact assessments are often an afterthought, which makes doing them more cost-heavy, labor-intensive, and generally difficult. Yet when done correctly, high-quality impact information about a group's project can have a powerful iterative effect, making not just that specific organization far more effective over time, but also multiplying the effectiveness of countless other groups with similar missions around the world.

Part of that impact assessment process is data collection. But that brings up a host of problems, especially when it comes to vulnerable populations. What happens if the organization providing services for refugees or the homeless are unscrupulous, and choose to sell that data to anyone who is willing to pay? What happens if your database gets hacked and data gets stolen? These are problems that the founders of Amply and ixo — organizations focused on impact assessment in early childhood development centers in South Africa — have thought a lot about.

We spoke with Amply's project lead, Joyce Zhang (also the program manager at ixo), about how Amply is integrating blockchain into its operations to positively influence the lives of schoolteachers, students, program administrators, and government workers in South Africa. Zhang was volunteering at a refugee camp in South Africa when she first learned of Amply. Amply is a decade-old organization that precedes the current blockchain hype and boom, and already has a smartphone app that's being used by teachers in South Africa.  

Zhang also explains how the ixo platform could transform the way impact data is collected and communicated. The various "tokens" on the ixo platform can be called cryptocurrencies in a loose sense, but they're completely different from the ones you're likely to have heard of. Is it accurate to consider these tokens as money? See what you think after reading this.

Aaron Fernando, Shareable: Can you tell me a little bit about how ixo and Amply started?

Joyce Zhang, project lead at Amply: A decade ago, our founder Shaun Conway, who spent his entire career in medicine had this idea of a collaborative aid marketplace. So, not just being in these silos of development or limited to countries or limited to organizations, but really having a global marketplace for where data can be shared and should be accessible to improve health outcomes. So around 2014, he and our other co-founder Lohan met and got together and wanted to pilot a project. Basically, there was an opportunity to receive some money if it was in ECD (early childhood development) here in South Africa.

So that's how Amply started — as an idea or as a project. They created a mobile app that would track the attendances of students or children in ECD centers in South Africa. The teachers would use this mobile app and all their attendances would be ledgered to a blockchain and that would help with the subsidying process in South Africa. So I think per child, per attendance, you get 15 rand, which is about one U.S. dollar. 

In 2016 they received the UNICEF Innovations Fund investment as a first [use of blockchain investment], and from there, they were able to pilot that project in November 2016 and brought it into centers around South Africa.

So how that relates to ixo, is that within this project they found this model of basically tracking impact and being able to ledger that onto a blockchain — and then, hopefully, receive funding and tokenize the impact. Creating a blockchain for impact where anyone can set up a project, where you set up the parameters, you have a blockchain-based system to ensure transparency and accountability as well as create this local impact ledger, and the funding flows through in a tokenized model.

Can you explain, very simply, what exactly is the advantage of tokenizing impact data on the blockchain?

The reason blockchain has a few advantages — the first one, as with the blockchain ledger, is bringing transparency and accountability into the impact space, which I think is greatly missing. As you can imagine, with charity and giving and donations, there's this notion that as long as you're giving, it's good. But there's no next step. Is this money actually going to where you think it's going? How much of it is going there? So having a blockchain-based system to track these projects and track the funding gives you accountability and transparency there.

On a larger scale, to have this global data commons of impact data, will ultimately be the future. We kind of live in an age where everything stems from data and what we can do with data. Impact data is also super relevant and important. To be honest, there's projects happening in literally every single country, in every community, and they probably share a lot of similarities that we just aren't picking up on right now and there's no way to track that. I think blockchain creates the best mechanism for that tracking and also making it public — not just in the silos of government and big organizations.

And is one of the ideas and advantages that you could sort of remove sensitive information that might be relevant to a vulnerable population so that it can be shared more freely?

Yeah, I think there are a few aspects of the data piece. One of the things that's great about what we're doing is that people — whether it's you as an individual or a group of people or a vulnerable population — as long as you are the owners of your project or you set up a project, you actually own your data. So you'll never be at the whim of … I don't want to name any names, but just any big organization who is helping this community and they actually own all of your data and can use it for research and can sell it to whoever else. So for vulnerable populations, I think that's there.

I came across a quote in your whitepaper that made it seem like you're going to automate some of the collection and impact assessment, is that the case?

Yeah, that is the goal. I think our founders' long-term goal is that it will all be automated. If we collect enough data now, and then slowly teach AI to automate it. We hope the proprietary aspect of every project is actually accompanied in that evaluation step. Whoever sets up the project, that evaluation step will determine kind of how your project goes by how it's going to be evaluated. Eventually, we hope that will all become like that.

All right. Moving on to Amply, can you give an overview of what you're doing, the location, demographics, and what problem you're solving exactly?

Amply got into the market and into the field as of November 2016. We ran our first pilot from November 2016 until November 2017 and that was using the initial grant from UNICEF Innovation, as well as a local investment fund here called Innovation Edge. They're kind of the biggest players in ECD here in South Africa. So with that money, we rolled out into different schools and centers, much with the help of Innovation Edge. We're mostly in the Western Cape but there are a few centers around the Johannesburg area, as well as in [other areas] north of Durban. We haven't yet expanded outside of South Africa, although that is kind of a plan to eventually go out of South Africa. 

So what we want to do — our first goal — here in South Africa, you get a 15-rand subsidy per child per day for attendances for qualified children. That's all paper-based right now. Through this app, we can digitize that process, which will save both the centers (as well as the government) time and money by just doing it. Secondly for the government, and actually for the centers, we'll start creating a database of what children exist. Currently that's a huge issue here in South Africa. They do'’t even know how many children are in these townships and what the need is, so then they can't accurately budget for it and have provisioning for that.

Then the longer term goal, also here is that each child and staff member gets a decentralized identity (a DID) and that identity, we hope, will eventually build up to become kind of like a self-sovereign identity or another identity mechanism.

From what it seemed online, it tracks the child but it's not identifiable necessarily?

Right now, to be perfectly honest, the identity piece is just happening on the back-end. We don't involve the child or the teacher in that aspect.

You can imagine: you give them an app and then you try to tell them, "Oh, and by the way, you have this unique number that's connected to you when you use it." So we haven't developed that out yet. Theoretically, every student and staff member in the system does have a unique identifier number. So every time they run a transaction, that number is associated with the transaction.

When you talk about the subsidies for each child, is that kind of like the teacher's pay?

No … I'm sure a lot of the money does go to the teacher's pay, but it’s just a subsidy that goes to the center that they can then use for teachers pay, schools, etc.

When I studied international development, one of the things that came up in a study was that —since corruption is kind of everywhere — when you track something, you actually can reduce the rates of corruption by simply communicating that something is being tracked. Is that also of a goal of this? Maybe it's possible that schools or teachers are over-reporting so that they get a bigger subsidy. Is this kind of one of the problems you're solving?

Exactly, that's a big issue here: over-reporting, missing children, some teachers will kind of change the front first name and last name, change a digit of the ID number, all sorts of stuff like that. I think the government here doesn't even have an Excel database that they have. They just have papers and then at the end of the month, they spread all the papers out and try to match children — try to match ID numbers.

This is definitely like three steps past that. Ideally, the end and final goal that we have is that the students… right now we have the teachers taking the attendances and claiming those student attendances. But the end goal would be to have the students claim their own attendances. 

That's related to a question I wanted to ask — since you're dealing with highly vulnerable populations, what do you do to ensure that you’re making sure that one, their data is safe, but also two, that you're not kind of like stepping in as an outsider that's like, "look at our solution" and making them feel like they have to use it?

With our project right now, we try to do that. We want to involve that in the development process and I think it's quite empowering thing to have them provide their input. We go on-site quite often. We want to ask them, "Are we confined to the things you have to do? Are we making this as easy a process for you as possible? Is there anything we can change? What else would you like to see?" I think that's a part of it.

I think the other part of it is — and I think this is kind of an issue in the blockchain space — there's a kind of aura that's very anti-government and anti-establishment, anti-corporation. But I think we can't go into it like that because these, especially vulnerable populations, they rely heavily on the government and heavily on these big organizations. So we're not going into it being like "use this instead of the government" or "use this because the government is failing you,” but we want to just facilitate the processes that are already in place.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

All photos courtesy of Amply and ixo

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