Years ago, I contributed to an earlier effort to create the Open Provenance Model , which as since evolved into other efforts, including the larger. Stemming from the challenges of documenting complex scientific processes, data, and conclusions, these rather obscure offshoots of the (itself obscure) Semantic Web have not had the impact I would have hoped. “Sank without a trace” would not be too far off.
So my eye caught by a new app, called “Provenance”, said to be coming Real Soon Now. And it uses the Bitcoin blockchain to publish provenance.
Provenance-the-app is the brainchild of designer Jessi Baker and others, and seeks to implementing the idea for “supply chains” rather than scientific chains of reasoning. The overall goal is make product sourcing “transparent”, arguing that this will allow people to consume more ethically, and save the planet. This means they need to be a consumer facing app, as well, not just a backend reasoning and query engine.
I’m with you so far. I’m not totally convinced of how well transparency will help save the planet, but it can’t hurt. And Baker is, like me, interested in “making things that fuse digital and physical.” So let’s have a look.
The Provenance app is highly influenced by blockchain technology, including Ethereum. Their white paper  is mainly about in public key signatures, assertions about the perceived merits of “decentralized” systems, and some very detailed ideas about digitally tagging physical processes and products.
They envision a system of certifications that document the sources and chain of processing for consumer products. These cryptographically sealed certificates are to be posted on a public blockchain, where they cannot be fiddled with, and where anyone can access them.
The idea is to make it possible to scan a product and quickly retrieve a trustworthy confirmation that it meets your ethical requirements. Presumably, people will be willing to pay extra for products that have these certificates.
Whether a blockchain per se is critical to this enterprise is arguable. Public key cryptography is certainly useful for establishing chains of trust. But the write-once ledger of the blockchain itself only solves the problem of destroying or hiding information, which isn’t necessarily the biggest problem. There are lots of ways to openly publish data, and, contrary to their assertions, a blockchain isn’t really that much better than other open publications—especially if you have good public key technology.
Provenance-the-app looks to be positioned to make some very important contributions to the overall problem of Provenance, which appears in many guises. They are working out some hard problems of digital signatures and open data access. This is very impressive.
To the degree that they succeed, their technology might be repurposed into scientific and other record keeping. If you can track a fish from source to table, you can track the “ingredients” of a scientific paper, no?
Looking through the materials available,
it appears that they are unaware (or perhaps deliberately reject) they don’t have anything to say about our earlier work and the W3C Semantic Web activity. At least, t They do not explicitly acknowledge it. (See comment below.)
If I may offer advice, I think they would be well served to harmonize with the W3C PROV WG. As “Open Data” folks, they should hew to open metadata standards, no? Second, they might glance at the earlier academic work in which we worked on models for automated reasoning about Provenance. They may not realize it yet, but there are important, difficult problems that they will want to solve in this area. I’m just sayin’.
(Update (12/24/2015): see comment below, indicating that there is collaboration in progress with W3C PROV.)
- Luc Moreau, Juliana Freire, Robert E. McGrath, Jim Myers, Joe Futrelle, and Patrick Paulson, The Open Provenance Model. 2007. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/14979/1/opm.pdf
- Jutta Steiner, Jessi Baker, and Gavin Wood, Blockchain: the solution for transparency in product supply chains. Project Provenance Ltd White Paper, 2015. https://www.provenance.org/whitepaper