FOAM is a technology that seeks to use blockchain and Ethereum contracts to create mapping and location based services. The project wants to address a complex of perceived problems: GPS is spoofable, maps are owned by big actors, and location services aren’t private. In addition, they think that “people lie about their location,” (Ryan John King, the co-founder and CEO of FOAM, quoted in Coindesk ) The solution deploys blockchain technology and Nakamotoan philosophy .
Looking at their materials, it is clear that FOAM is mainly focused on replicating Internet location-based services, not on navigation or engineering or geoscience. The geospatial model is a two-dimensional map of the surface of the Earth.
The location service depends on many local low-power radio beacons instead of satellites. They imagine an ad hoc mesh of locally operated beacons, which are recognized and validated via Nakamotoan style consensus rather than a central authority (such as a government space agency). These beacons are used to trangulate positions. Good behavior and trustworthiness of the beacons is supposedly assured by cryptocurrency tokens, in the form of incentives, notably buy in and security deposits.
They imagine this to be used to construct datasets of “Points of Interest”, which are “where are the stores, cafes, restaurants and malls, where a fleet of vehicles in a ride sharing program like Uber should be anticipating if demand is shifting or surging, or which traffic bottlenecks drivers should avoid on an app such as Waze.” These are stored and validated through a decentralized protocol. “[G]ranting control over the registries of POI to locally-based markets and community forces, allowing the information provided to be validated by those who contribute to the relevant locality.”
These datasets are to be created through bottom up efforts, presumably incentivized by desire to operate local services. “FOAM hopes that the Cartographers and users will contribute the necessary individual work, resources, and effort themselves to contribute to the ongoing community-driven growth and supplement this important cartography project.”
Interestingly, the crypto token-based incentive system relies on negative incentives, namely buy ins and “security deposits” that can be forfeited by consensus. I’m not sure I’ve seen another Nakamotoan project with this sort of punishment based (dis-)incentive. (I’ll note that psychologists generally find that the threat of punishment does not engender trust.)
Obviously, this entire concept will depend on the development of the localization network and the datasets of “Points of Interest”. As far as I can see, realizing this is based on “hope” that people will contribute. I’d call this “faith-based engineering”
We can pause to reflect the irony of this “trustless” system that appears to be entirely based on “hope” and the threat of punishment.
As far as the actual technology, it is, of course, far short of a “map of the world”. The local beacons are fine for a dense urban setting, but there is little hope of coverage in open space, and no chance that it will be useful at sea, up in the air, inside significant structures, or underground. Sure, there are ways to deploy beacons indoors and other places, but it isn’t easy, and doesn’t fit the general use cases (Points of Interest).
Ad hoc networks aren’t immune to jamming or interference, either, and are essentially defenseless against determined opposition. In classic fashion, the protocol “routes around” interference, discarding misbehaving nodes and corrupted data. Unfortunately, this means that the response to a determined and sustained attack is to shut down.
The incentive system is somewhat unique, though the notion of a “security deposit” is widely used. How well will it work? (How well do security deposits work?) It’s hard to say, and there doesn’t seem to be much analysis of potential attacks. The notion that the loss of security deposits and other incentives will guarantee honest and reliable operation remains a theoretical “hope”, with no evidence backing it.
The system depends on a “proof of location”, but it isn’t clear just how this will work in a small, patchy network. In particular, assumptions about the security of the protocol may not be true for small, local groups of nodes—precisely the critical use case for FOAM.
Finally, I’ll note that the system is built on Ethereum, which has had numerous problems. To the degree that FOAM uses Ethereum contracts, we can look forward to oopsies, as well as side effects from whatever emergency forks become necessary.
Even if there are no serious bugs, Ethereum is hardly designed for real time responses, or for datasets at the scale of “the whole world”. Just what requirements will FOAM put on the blockchain, consensus, and Ethereum virtual machine? I don’t know, and I haven’t seen any analysis of the question.
This is far from an academic question. Many location services are extremely sensitive to time, especially to lag. Reporting “current position” must be really, really instantaneous. Lags of minutes or even seconds can render position information useless.
Can a blockchain based system actually deliver such performance?
Overall, FOAM really is “a dream”, as Alyssa Hertig says. A dream that probably will never be realized.
- Foamspace Corp, FOAM Whitepaper. Foamspace Corp, 2018. https://foam.space/publicAssets/FOAM_Whitepaper_May2018.pdf
- FoamSpcae Corp, The Consensus Driven Map of the World, in FOAM Space. 2017. https://blog.foam.space/
- Alyssa Hertig (2018) FOAM and the Dream to Map the World on Ethereum. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/foam-dream-map-world-ethereum/