Dec. 8, 2021
Over the past two years, our team at New America worked with a coalition of business, NGO, technology, and academia leaders to develop an open source blockchain-powered solution to assess health and working conditions in supply chains. DIGI, Levi Strauss & Co., the T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s SHINE Initiative at Harvard, and ConsenSys collaborated to develop a new approach to factory worker well-being assessments.
By integrating the SHINE Well-being Survey into a secure blockchain platform that can be deployed in-person or remotely, workers are empowered to safely share their workplace experiences. The team piloted the blockchain-powered survey solution in-person in garment factories in Mexico (2019) and remotely with factory workers in Poland (2020).
Despite the many obstacles that have emerged over the course of this project, largely due to the global pandemic, we maintain that this was an amazing opportunity to demonstrate that immutable data can improve trust in systems and strengthen transparency in the workplace. This work was generously supported by the State Department and the Levi Strauss Foundation.
Many workers around the world lack mechanisms to safely and confidentially advocate for change or voice concerns related to their work, safety, health and overall well-being. According to the World Health Organization, over 50% of workers in many countries have no social protection and are subject to lax enforcement of occupational health and safety standards. These challenges are particularly acute in the apparel industry, where marginalized populations often lack safe and secure means to address problems with their quality of life and well-being.
Nearly all clothing brands lack a comprehensive view of factory conditions and a mechanism to combine well-being insights with business data to make ethical supply chains competitive. Fragmented information about the apparel value chain and efforts to protect the privacy of workers often prevents researchers from building effective interventions to improve factory production and worker quality of life.
Survey Assure is a near-real time tool designed to aggregate survey responses from various data sources (for example, Qualtrics), make the contents of those survey responses immutable, or protected, through the Ethereum Blockchain, and allows the system administrators to create a "presentation layer" in order to visualize responses and analyze the data without altering it. This layer reflects the opinions of an entire factory workforce in close to real time. In other words, it is designed to foster trust between companies and workers by allowing workers to know that their survey responses were not altered in any way. This approach wasn’t your typical supply chain tracking pilot.
The unvarnished nature of the anonymized survey data of factory workers in Poland and Mexico created tremendous potential for workers, business and human rights. It helped factory management better pinpoint where potential investments could improve worker experiences. These interventions and management’s subsequent actions have the potential to decrease turnover and absenteeism while improving sustainable and productive practices.
The solution code and documentation from the project are available on New America’s Github.
Key Project Findings
Using technologies that protect privacy while measuring how people experience work is challenging, but has several significant benefits
- Good for humanity, sustainable economies, healthy communities
- Good for business (better data to make better decisions, less turnover)
Harnessing blockchain for a proof of concept on improving worker health and wellbeing is both significant and novel
- Immutable data can improve trust
- Strengthens transparency in workplace
- Creates an innovative workforce-wide perspective
- Increases the value of data
The application of blockchain to increase the integrity of a survey system remains in a proof-of-concept phase, and additional development work can both make the product more robust and add features. Key features we imagine adding in future iterations of the solution could include:
- Support for additional data sources
- Stronger access control limitations to fine-tune who can see what data
- Independent verification of receipt upload to the Ethereum blockchain
- More advanced visualizations and calculations
- Easier deployability and replicability
Survey Assure can be applied to any survey environment where trust and privacy are paramount.
- The pilot was conducted with workers in garment factories; however, workplaces, schools, researchers, governments, and civil society organizations all need to collect survey responses and assure participants that their data will be safe, secure, and private.
- The pilot surveys were conducted both in-person in a factory (Mexico) and remotely on smartphones (Poland). Connectivity and tech literacy are issues to consider when deploying a survey solution.
Survey Assure is a first step in an evolving field of research
- Encourages dialogue and more stakeholder outreach around worker health and wellbeing issues
- Potential to replicate and iterate open source project
- We hope the work inspires others to pursue innovative approaches to difficult problems
- Highlights the importance of appealing for engagement with a wider coalition
Regardless of the status of this grant funded work, the foundational work to advance worker rights through surveys that advance transparency and accountability will continue, as will a commitment to supporting the development of digital public goods and harnessing open source civic tech solutions. To advance this project past the point of proof of concept the following will need to happen:
- Identifying additional resources is imperative to continue to iterate on the solution. We would also like to find resources to support addressing a backlog of features, and scale.
- The users of this system must remain at the forefront of all future work. Although we were meticulous in testing the concept safely and ethically, it will be far more difficult to do at scale.
- Future iterations of the system could incorporate business data ranging from worker hours to purchase order volume to better understand impacts on factory workers.
- Organizations affiliated with the project will continue to draw attention to the solution and invite feedback to best map out future strategy for wider adoption. However identifying venues to advance this work will also take additional resources.
- The Harvard/SHINE team will continue with their research and work on advancing issues that relate to the health and wellbeing of workers. In this emerging era, as we continue to navigate pandemic related challenges in work and society, there is a need to pursue a coalition approach across the public and private sectors to assess the complex equation between workers and brands.
- The Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) at New America will continue to use this work and the code as an example of how to create open source solutions and share how digital public goods, such as the Survey Assure platform, can be integrated into existing workstreams.
This experimental pilot project was ambitious. Blockchain may be going more mainstream, but harnessing it for non-fintech applications is still nascent. But there is real and often unrealized value in identifying what complicates innovation. It allows us to explore where there is need for additional research, structure and investment. We learned a few lessons in civic tech development from our experiences that apply beyond the improvement of supply chains.
- Invest in broadband access. If high-bandwidth connectivity and accurate digitized records remain largely restricted to industrialized countries, the impact of digital solutions and emerging technology will be significantly limited. Access to technology and data remains an issue. About 40% of the world’s population remains offline, according to Statista. Accurately converting physical data to digital form is expensive, time consuming and, most critically, must be done with care. If blockchain powered solutions are to achieve their full potential as an open, democratic technology, public- and private-sector investment in interoperable but protected data is a core need in both developing and developed countries.
- Develop safe and effective identity solutions. Blockchain-based platforms require an integrated identity management solution to authenticate users and maintain accountability. By providing a verifiable identity, many of the services governments and nonprofits provide, including aid distribution, land titling and financial services, could become more accessible and manageable. If developing digital identity solutions was simple, it would have been done by now. The development of a secure proof-of-identity that integrates with emerging systems and protects the end user could transform the lives of the one billion people worldwide without a legal identity.
- Nurture inclusive technical talent and field building. Analogous to the field of computer science a generation ago, only a few programmers and tech firms understand emerging technology like blockchain and AI, and they concentrate on applications that are immediately profitable. As the field grows, cross-sector technology projects, including those that are in the public interest, would benefit from public-private sector partnerships, fellowship programs, academia and open civic hackathons.
In March, 2021, we convened an online event to discuss this work. Representatives from New America, Harvard/SHINE, and the Levi Strauss Foundation participated in Building Sustainable Supply Chains: Evaluating Worker Well-being Impacts Using Blockchain Event. A recording of the event is online.
In October, we published a summary of our findings with Coindesk, an online media outlet and leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money.
For those interested in additional information on this project, please email DIGI@newamerica.org