A proof of concept for a blockchain-enabled solution that makes applying for energy support easier, quicker, and more efficient
Emmie Osselaere – Stad Ghent,
Shane Deconinck – Howest,
Daniël Du Seuil – District 09/European Blockchain Partnership
Becoming a climate neutral city
Ghent wants to be climate neutral by 2050. To make this possible, the city needs to develop new ways of working that can help accelerate the energy transition, and to speed up the program of energy efficient home renovations. The city provides an ‘Energyloan’ (‘Energielening’) to households to help them afford energy-saving upgrades for their properties. The current application process involves many parties and is too cumbersome for citizens.
Ghent wants to drastically reduce the time and administrative burden of the application procedure by developing a system that uses blockchain technology to manage user identity and enable the rapid, electronic transfer of authenticated data about applicants between partners – without transferring the applicant’s personal details.
In the current process, a lot of communication is required between the applicant and the energy consultant who is supporting their application and gathering all the documents that are required – and the applicant often has to deliver more information than is strictly necessary. Once this is done, an administrative assistant needs to check each document, which is a time-consuming procedure.
Ghent’s proof of concept focuses on reducing the burden on both the administrative assistant and the applicant. We are testing an approach based on the use of a “self- sovereign identity”, where the applicant can choose which data may be shared and with whom via a blockchain-enabled service.
Proof of Concept Goals
Our pilot will have a positive impact on
the people who are using the service by simplifying the process of applying for an energy loan. The combination of a Self- Sovereign Identity (SSI) framework and Verifiable Credentials (VC) technology enables safe, secure, and efficient sharing of identity and loan application information among the various parties involved in the process.
Citizens (credential holders) will be able to request valid electronic copies of their data from data providers via an e-wallet- system. This will replace the paper copies of information that applicants currently provide. The data providers will send the requested data in the form of a Verifiable Credential (VC) whose authenticity can be confirmed via the blockchain. The citizen will then be able to decide if they wish to present these credentials to the wallet of the City of Ghent (the verifier) for processing.
The use of Verified Credentials will provide a method to prove electronically that the citizen meets the different criteria required to be eligible for the Energy Loan without having to give any personal information to the City of Ghent (e.g. the system can verify that the applicant is a Belgian taxpayer without needing to provide their unique taxpayer reference). The length of time it takes to process applications will be drastically reduced, because the citizen can ask for the data to be provided directly from the authentic source and this authenticity can be verified via the blockchain solution. This will ensure that only the correct documents/credentials can be supplied and eliminates the need to validate and cross-check the applicant’s paperwork.
The proof of concept is being delivered through a large partnership with many external organisations, including the City of Ghent, Howest (as technical/academic partner), District09 (IT-partner for the City of Ghent), the Social Welfare department, BOSA (the Belgian Digital Transformation Office), the Belgian Ministry of the Economy, the Belgian Ministry of Finance, EBSI (the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure), and ValidatedID and Walt.id as SSI wallet technology providers.
Using Self Sovereign Identity
The Energy Loan proof of concept is built upon the concept of ‘self-sovereign identity’ that is enabled by a blockchain solution. The interaction between users/citizens and organizations is managed via an identity wallet, which stores verifiable credentials for the users. Citizens choose which wallet provider they wish to use. The credentials are issued by organisations via trusted issuer registries, so that the credentials can be cryptographically verified. No personal data is stored on the blockchain, but the blockchain solution enables an individual’s credentials to be verified in a privacy-friendly way.
The pilot is using the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI), in which the decentralised identifiers (DIDs) of the issuers are stored on a blockchain. They are listed in a Trusted Registry, so that verifiers can verify the signature on the Verifiable Credentials of the citizens.
The EnergyLoan solution
EnergyLoan involves the integration and coordination of multiple parties. This includes:
- A portal for the citizen by City of Ghent to apply for a loan
- A portal for BOSA to issue the citizen with a VerifiableID and verifiable credentials (from the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of the Economy)
- A ValidatedID credentials studio by Social Welfare service to issue their verifiable credentials
- A back-end for City of Ghent to verify the credentials which are presented during the application for the Energy Loan,
and then issue energy loan credentials
The role of blockchain
In this proof of concept the use of blockchain is actually quite minimal – but the success of the whole process relies on the use of Self Sovereign Identity, which is delivered through the blockchain.
For an SSI-pilot to be set up successfully, it’s important to get as many certification issuers as possible to support the ecosystem. But to achieve this, these organisations need to be educated on what SSI is, on how it will benefit them, and on how they can get it set up.
When choosing a blockchain solution for our service, Ghent faced several technical and organizational issues. One of the main considerations was ensuring regulatory compliance for a government service. This required careful consideration of the nodes involved in the network, as well as their hosting location. Ultimately, this led us to consider the use of the public permissioned network of the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI) as a viable solution that would meet our requirements for security and regulatory compliance.
Responses to the proof of concept
User feedback and experience with our plans for a blockchain-enabled demonstrator service has been mixed, with many stakeholders having misconceptions and prejudices about the technology. Through our public engagement sessions, we have found it necessary to emphasize the key features of our Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) implementation, that no personal data was stored on the blockchain, that EBSI is a regulated environment, and that the ecological impact of our blockchain was minimal.
As users become more familiar with the technology and its capabilities, they tend to have a more positive perception of our blockchain-enabled service.
What happens next
Now that the pilot is complete, it will be available to stakeholders for review and evaluation and can be ‘tested’ with a set of dummy accounts. It will be up to the regional and national stakeholders whether this demonstrator project moves towards deployment.
Ghent feels that the wallet solutions tested in this pilot are promising, and they will work with their partners to explore how wallets can help other projects that are aiming
to accelerate the energy transition.
For the staff of the City of Ghent, it has been an inspiring and educational experience, providing valuable insights into the potential benefits of blockchain technology.
Although the citizens do not have access to the service yet, the pilot has been a real eye-opener, demonstrating the potential for increased efficiency, security, and accessibility in government services.
The proof of concept has shifted how Ghent thinks about the relationships between technology, strategy, and services. This has enabled more service-first thinking, and is enabling more bottom-up approaches.
Lessons learned – working with stakeholders
Stakeholders often aren’t familiar with Blockchain technology, which causes them to be initially hesitant. Blockchain is often seen
as a more experimental and risky technology, and this results in a lot of prejudice. Once stakeholders were better informed of our solution, they were more open to engaging with the project and saw it as an opportunity to learn more about this innovative technology. Opinions within our organisation on our proof of concept were mixed:
- The operational side was sceptical about the changes to the application for the Energy Loan and the value of blockchain-enabled services to their process.
- The technical side was very supportive and willing to help us during the project.
- At a strategic level, the idea of an internal blockchain project was a shift, as projects like this are usually outsourced.
Ghent realised that it was very important to work to bring knowledge into the organisation: people are often more resistant to new things when they don’t understand how they work.
Lessons learned – technical issues
- The choice of a wallet provider was a key challenge, as one of our stakeholders
uses a wallet that didn’t meet EBSI standards, which meant there was no interoperability between wallets in the system. It is important to find a wallet provider that does guarantee interoperability.
- Our proof of concept integrated many differing systems, but only some parts of the process used blockchain.
- Not every process/system is ready for a digital process flow. One element can block the digitalisation/optimalisation of the process.
Working with EBSI – the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure
By relying on the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI), we benefitted from their experience and their platform to quickly build our use case. Setting up a separate or dedicated blockchain network just for this use case was not realistic or achievable, while integrating EBSI in this solution added an additional layer of security and transparency.
Onboarding on the EBSI platform did require some exploration and alignment between partners and processes. EBSI is a relatively young and evolving platform, which makes it challenging for the Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) wallet providers to ensure interoperability.
A bigger challenge in building the proof of concept was choosing the other components which were needed to interact with the blockchain layers and with partners’ legacy systems.
User wallets and enterprise wallets are an essential part of the use case, and we relied on platforms using EBSI conformant wallets. But this choice also impacts our stakeholders, and as an entirely open-source wallet is not yet available, we needed to collaborate with commercial wallet providers. Howest gained valuable experience
and knowledge in implementing Self-
Sovereign Identity (SSI) with the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI) in a government setting. Through the pilot, they have learned a lot of practical lessons about the technical and organizational challenges involved in implementing this technology.
The value of wallets
The concept of the wallet-systems, which we researched through this Proof of Concept, offers a lot of potential for the future. Existing service initiatives can easily be connected to a wallet system, creating a complementary and decentralized system. A single wallet could potentially offer different applications and services that citizens can use. The wider SSI approach gives the citizens of Ghent ownership of their own data and insights into how and where it is being used.
The service architecture that has been developed is relevant to the other subsidy and loan applications services provided by Ghent, as the data needed to apply for an energy loan is similar to the data needed to apply for other loans and grants. It is possible that once a service like the Energy Loan is deployed, that other similar services will then be easily built using the same (shared) platform.