Blockchain is one of the buzzwords of 2017, but it remains a technology that is still poorly understood by most people, who equate it – if they equate it with anything at all – with the financial services industry and little else.
But this is now starting to change, and among some of the innovators trying to push adoption of blockchain in new areas is unified communications supplier Avaya.
At Gitex 2017, the Middle East’s largest digital trade fair, the unified comms supplier-turned-software business is proposing to build a vast blockchain ledger that will support the Dubai government in an attempt to make its citizens happy.
Across Dubai, and the wider federal United Arab Emirates (UAE), happiness is no laughing matter. With 90% of its population foreign-born, the UAE is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse states in the world, and as oil revenues begin to dwindle, the government is keen to foster the idea of national happiness to continue to entice people to live and work in one of the most stable, and booming, economies in the Middle East.
Earlier in 2017, the prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced the appointment of the country’s first minister of state for happiness, economist Ohood Al Roumi.
Al Roumi also serves as vice-president of the World Government Summit Organisation, and was the first Arab member of the UN Global Entrepreneurship Council. “Happiness is a journey focused on all segments of UAE society, and the role of the government is to create an enabling environment to achieve this goal,” she says.
Ahmed Helmy, Avaya director of advanced solutions engineering, tells Computer Weekly: “This project was inspired by the way Dubai is directed. The government wants to provide services that make customers happy – this is important for Dubai because things like tourism and shopping are critical to the economy, and this kind of service economy will only flourish if people are happy with the services they receive compared to other countries.
“All across government services, retail and hospitality, you now see people trying to learn how to make users happy, to relate to the Ministry of Happiness,” he adds.
A big part of the new ministry’s job is to collect, collate and act on sentiment data – essentially, whether or not an experience was good or bad – gathered from citizen interactions with government services in the UAE.
“When you interact as a resident or a citizen with the government, after that interaction there are three smilies presented, which the consumer can choose [but] typically this model of feedback doesn’t give you a complete picture,” says Mirza Waqas, a Dubai resident and managing director of Avanza Solutions, a local financial technology (fintech) specialist that is working with Avaya on the blockchain project.
“We’re now trying to take the next step, we’re bringing science to this process and trying to extract sentiment that goes beyond these three smilies.”
Blockchain and unified communications – unlikely bedfellows?
But why should a unified communications supplier such as Avaya be at all interested in blockchain? What possible relevance does blockchain have to telephone calls? The link is quite a simple one, says Helmy.
“If you look at blockchain outside of the cryptocurrency world, it’s all about value data, how to gather and protect data and guarantee its integrity,” he says. “One of the main things customer communication platforms do is generate data.”
“If Avaya is the main choice for communication and contact centres in a smart city government, we have lots of valuable information that, if analysed in the right way, lets us understand customer behaviour and sentiment,” says Helmy.
Avaya considers blockchain an ideal way to manage the data it collects when people interact with its contact centres. This is in part because contact centres will frequently create a contract during the contact.
A distributed blockchain ledger is useful here because it can recall, verify and secure the details of the transaction in such a way that it cannot be changed unnoticed.
Happily for Helmy, Avaya (which now bases its entire business outside North America in the UAE) is the Dubai government’s supplier of choice for communication and contact centres, and over the years it has worked extensively with multiple agencies in the city.
Working alongside Avanza Solutions, Avaya hopes to analyse user interaction through voice, video, email, SMS and so on, using artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities built into its Oceana customer experience platform to generate real-time anonymised data, broken down by criteria such as gender and age.
If successfully deployed, this data will then be written to the blockchain ledger to create a massive state-wide database of how people are feeling about the service they receive from the government, from rubbish collection, to doctor’s appointments, to renewing a driver’s licence, and much more besides.
But it is not merely citizen-government interactions that the project aims to capture – Helmy anticipates publishing the application programming interfaces (APIs) online so that private sector organisations can also join in.
In this scenario, organisations would sign up to membership of the blockchain and create their own profiles, which would allow them to use certain anonymised datasets to benchmark themselves against their industry peers and improve their customer service.
This would mean that banks, for example, could gain insight into how financial products are going down with their users; restaurants could tweak their menu options, or address hygiene issues; or tourist attractions such as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, could take steps to make queueing for the elevators a more pleasant experience.
Because multiple participants will have access to vast stores of previously untapped citizen data, albeit anonymised, the blockchain element is critical, says Waqas: “The role of blockchain in this is for data immutability, so the originators cannot tamper with the data.”
“The government will be able to gain insight into both public and private sectors without the hassle of integrating the back-end systems of multiple organisations,” says Helmy.
“They’ll also overcome the barriers in place between secure environments like financial services, and environments with lower security like retail and hospitality.”
At the time of writing, the blockchain project remains a theoretical one, although Avaya is understood to have already met with interested government representatives. Helmy says he is optimistic about the project’s future, and not just in Dubai.
“This is not just for the Dubai government, but for any government that has the initiative to build a blockchain ledger,” he says.