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by Giulio Prisco, Oct 03, 2017

University of Surrey Picks Distributed Ledger Technology To Manage Biometric Data


Wearable tech

For the last several years a major topic in technology has been about how to harness the exponentially greater amount of data we have access to thanks to the internet. One consistently discussed concept linking health, business, and technology is finding a way to capture biometric data and properly use it. 

At least conceptually, capturing biometric data has been solved through the use of “wearbles” or articles of clothing and other accessories outfitted with biosensors. 

One major milestone for wearable technology will occur when insurance companies can offer discounts based on an individual’s biometric data. Before anything like this could occur, there needs to be a definitive solution to how people can properly use their biometric data. In this new field, the blockchain or distributed ledger technology (DLT) may yield opportunity.

The University of Surrey announced in May that it had won three DLT grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

“These exciting developments position Surrey as a U.K. leader, if not the U.K. leader, in blockchain technology,” said Atti Emecz, University of Surrey’s Acting Vice-Provost, Research and Innovation. “In addition, these projects will contribute to EPSRC’s delivery plan to support a more prosperous U.K. by working towards a more connected and healthy nation. The transformative uses of DLT offer huge potential and these awards allow us to work and develop on these.”

The first project aims to improve personal healthcare management by using blockchain-based DLT to manage biometric information that is created from wearable devices. Titled “Co-operative Models for Evidence-based Healthcare Redistribution” (COMeHeRE), this project began on June 30 with £420,045 funding for 18 months. The project is intended to combine data from wearable devices, blockchain technology and machine learning to securely store and access data. According to the EPSRC’s project website, the data would be shared “with state and private healthcare providers to enable more targeted, personalized patterns of treatment.” . In addition, “other benefits may arise from the individual participating materially in new markets created through the monetisation of this data.”

The University’s Surrey Business School and Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing (CVSSP), will collaborate to complete the project under the leadership of Prof. Alan Brown, Head of the Department of Digital Economy and Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Surrey Business School. Other project partners are insurance operator AXA Group, blockchain technology developer Guardtime and digital health and wellness provider BioBeats. AXA PPP will provide the application context and a basis for assessing practical impact, while Guardtime will supply blockchain technology expertise and BioBeats will contribute its machine learning platform.

A project summary issued by Research Councils UK (RCUK) notes that while popular attention has previously focused on DLT as a technological phenomena supporting new types of currency (like bitcoin), more and more people are now realizing DLT has the potential to change business and society. “DLTs have the potential for rewriting conventional notions of how business transactions relate with customers, enhance transparency and trust, and create fresh opportunities for value creation,” states the project summary. “In domains such as healthcare, the potential of DLTs to disrupt the status quo is clear.” According to the RCUK, “increased use of DLTs will promote a new breed of smart applications for healthcare providers, health insurers and health-focused solution providers that would exploit more easily the latest medical research to develop personalized treatment paths.”

The project will develop a publicly available software demonstrator to interface with both the general public and insurers such as AXA. Distributed ledger technology will allow for data to be curated, hosted and used as tradeable value depending on individual preferences. The project will also explore the potential for smart contracts in healthcare management.

A job posting for a new research position dedicated to the project provides more technical detail:  “COMeHeRE will develop novel machine learning algorithms to identify patterns within medical data acquired through wearable biosensors (e.g. FitBit) working alongside an innovative startup and healthcare provider engaged in the machine learning and wellness space. The aim of the project is to investigate, develop and demonstrate new ways to enable users to broker their wearable data to such providers, creating a novel market for wearable biosensor data.”

Alongside COMeHeRE, the University of Surrey has won two other EPRSC grants for innovative applications of blockchain technology. One, titled “Trusted and Transparent Voting Systems” (£240,653 funding), will explore applications of DLT in voting and collective decision making. Another, titled “ARCHANGEL - Trusted Archives of Digital Public Records” (£487,428 funding), will work with the UK's National Archives and Tim Berners-Lee's Open Data Institute to develop technology that ensures the long-term security and sustainability of digital archives.