The excitement and hype around blockchain may have died down, but some Federal IT leaders are looking to blockchain to complement other emerging technologies by providing clean, trusted, and richer data to support operations and provide deeper insights.

“Blockchain, AI (artificial intelligence), and RPA (robotic process automation) kind of go hand in hand. If you want to deal with RPA or AI, how important is it for that data to have data integrity and quality? It’s critical, because if you start building your machine learning training model…and what you put in is trash, what the AI is going to do is push out trash. Blockchain helps that in terms of cleansing the data,” said Oki Mek, chief product officer within the Division of Acquisition at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during FCW’s Blockchain Workshop on Tuesday.

“I see blockchain as being certainly a complement to anything you’re doing with the Internet of Things, and certainly artificial intelligence,” said Vincent Annunziato, director of the Business Transformation and Innovation Division at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

“They’re not mutually exclusive. I’ve had people tell me that they’re doing AI or blockchain. That shouldn’t be. What should be happening is that you’re getting better data off that blockchain, and you should be informing your machine learning and your AI,” Annunziato added.

“I think as we are moving forward, we can get away from talking about the technology underlying all of it, and start thinking about data,” said Sachiko Kuwabara, director of the Office of Risk Management at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “How do we use data to answer really tough questions, and how can we use technology to automate the easy ones? We’re building this blockchain data layer, and we’re then looking at robotic process automation to streamline and automate that process,” she said.

“Blockchain will not change the foundation of what data we collect, but how we collect it, with more entities involved, and more data than we’ve ever collected before,” said Annunziato.

Participants also discussed how their agencies are moving forward with blockchain projects at varying levels of maturity.

Annunziato discussed CBP’s use of blockchain to verify free trade certifications.

“What customs did is actually developed a system that is software agnostic. If you adhere to the specifications that DHS has been working on for the past four and a half to five years, you would be able to communicate with us through blockchain,” he noted. He also described how CBP was looking at extending functionality to mixed reality devices and a potential consumer app for people to see if their products are legitimate or counterfeited.

Mek described how HHS is using a private, permissioned blockchain to focus on the pre-award process.

“We found that different offices do pre-award differently. They deal with 40 to 50 systems on average. Our thinking is, why don’t we take the information and put it in a blockchain?” Mek also pointed to the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program as one that could benefit from blockchain, to prevent tampering with security logs.

Kuwabara noted that CDC was spurred by the public health threats of Ebola and Zika to improve the efficiency of the agency’s response teams and address the decades-old legacy technology at CDC’s core, while not disrupting the agency’s operations. Thankfully, CDC did not have to look far.

“What we’re looking to do is very similar to the HHS system. In fact, it was listening to [HHS] that got me thinking, if we can reduce the time it takes to get our acquisitions out the door, surely, we can use that to get our people out the door, and do that in an efficient and secure way.”

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