Blockchain: the technology of the future?

The numerous applications of blockchain technology at FHWS

 © colourbox/FHWS

At FHWS, there are plenty of projects and subject areas in which various possible applications of blockchain are catching on. From economics and business administration through computer science to logistics – modern blockchain technology is being further developed and researched in many areas at FHWS.

The beeping of the monitors, getting ever faster, in the emergency room. The rustling of many documents which lie in piles on the counter. The frantic voices of the nursing staff who are desperately searching for the right consent form while a patient fights for their life.

[Translate to Englisch:] Foto der Preisverleihung
[Translate to Englisch:] Die Würzburger Informatiker Andreas Schütz (von links) und Tobias Fertig nahmen in Berlin von Bundesgesundheitsminister Jens Spahn den zweiten Preis bei der Zukunftswerkstatt "Blockchain im Gesundheitswesen" entgegen. (© VDI/VDE-IT, Norman Posselt)
dPaCoS software Picture
The image shows the use of the two Würzburg-based doctoral students’ dPaCoS software. (© FHWS/Andreas Schütz)

Situations like this are not uncommon in hospitals. Two doctoral students at FHWS, Andreas Schütz and Tobias Fertig, present a solution for how everyday life there could be less stressful and more organised. In 2019, the computer scientists took part in a Federal Ministry of Health ideas competition and took second place in it with their presentation of the so-called dPaCos (decentralized Patient Consent Service). This is a decentralised service for patient consent forms which is based on blockchain. 

First, it should be developed as a decentralised app which stores patient consent forms transparently and in an unalterable form in blockchain. In the future, the service should also be linked to various systems in hospitals or even genome databases. Patients could thus save their consent forms for processes such as blood donation, organ donation or even life-saving measures there. These could then be accessed quickly and securely by medical personnel in stressful situations. 

“Blockchain is unalterable and very transparent. The technology creates trust through the fact that so many participants monitor and verify all processes,” says Schütz. It is for precisely this reason that the technology is so well suited to the healthcare sector. According to Schütz, the fact that two doctoral students from FHWS were able to prevail against 142 entries in the competition can be attributed to the fact that they are both computer scientists: “Because we were able to single out the strengths and weaknesses of the technology very clearly as a result.” Together with Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn, Schütz and Fertig then discussed further possibilities for the implementation of the concepts presented with the first and third-placed teams in the competition.

Quote by Andreas Schütz: “Blockchain is unalterable and very transparent. The technology creates trust through the fact that so many participants monitor and verify all processes.”
Group photo of all persons involved
In May 2019, Tobias Fertig and Andreas Schütz (4th and 5th from the left, back row) visited Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (2nd from the left) at the Federal Ministry of Health in Berlin. Spahn spoke with the three winners of the “Application concepts for blockchain technologies in the German healthcare sector” ideas competition about specific possibilities for the implementation of their concepts. (© Federal Ministry of Health/Schinkel)

Blockchain became a subject at FHWS in 2016 when Prof. Dr. Michael Müßig, Professor of Innovation Management in the Faculty of Computer Science and Business Information Systems, organised a blockchain BarCamp. Experts from throughout Germany were invited to share ideas regarding the new technology. Since then, there have been lectures and guest lectures by Schütz and Fertig in various faculties.

Hype or disruptive innovation?

Accordingly, the question of whether blockchain is simply a hype or a disruptive innovation is occupying people in more fields than just computer science. In 2019, Prof. Dr. Arndt Gottschalk from the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration planned a workshop for students on the topic of blockchain. “At the time, it seemed like blockchain would change the world and it was therefore clear to me that our students must help to shape the topic,” says Gottschalk.

After a brainstorming session, he started a six-week “design thinking process” in which the students engaged critically with the modern technology. They created prototypes without needing any programming knowledge. The goal of building a bridge between users and developers was achieved.

One group developed a so-called book chain, for example. This is a digital platform in which all of the data on organisation development is securely linked together via blockchain. In order to make this digital platform tangible, the students built a prototype. This consisted of four rooms. Each with space for questions, a job placement, literature and exchange with one another. The aim was to pay for the services offered via the blockchain system with the help of an internal currency.

Quote Prof. Dr. Arndt Gottschalk: “With little prior knowledge, we worked on the topic with a great deal of enthusiasm because the versatile technology can be worthwhile for the field of controlling through human resources management to taxes.”

The professor was impressed: “With little prior knowledge, we worked on the topic with a great deal of enthusiasm because the versatile technology can be worthwhile for the field of controlling through human resources management to taxes.” According to Gottschalk, this was recognised by the students because “over the course of the semester, the majority of them were convinced that blockchain is indeed a disruptive innovation.”

Strategic tool for logistics

In logistics too, the discussion around blockchain technology is resulting in a rethink. “It is exciting to consider which processes in logistics could be improved by blockchain and in which places the technology would be a tool where there previously was no solution,” says Peter Walker, research assistant at the Institute of Applied Logistics Solutions (IAL) at FHWS. In his opinion, the biggest area of application for blockchain in logistics is the field of supply chain management. Because blockchain technology is considered to be an innovation in network technology and, thanks to its characteristics, can make industrial production and delivery more reliable and efficient.

“We picked up the topic of blockchain for the first time in 2018 when we worked with the City of Würzburg and partners such as Siemens or TU Munich to develop the Green City Plan for Würzburg,” says Walker. Students at FHWS presented an urban logistics concept. This resulted in a plan, in which measures were outlined and evaluated with regard to emission-free and sustainable mobility in the Würzburg region.

According to Walker, an interesting question came up in the field of city centre logistics which a bachelor’s student subsequently discussed in his final thesis. “He examined city centre delivery in Würzburg with regard to a crowd shipping solution with blockchain,” says Walker. Crowd shipping can be considered as an example of how people use social networks in order to behave cooperatively and to distribute goods and services for the benefit of the community as well as for their own personal benefit. Through the decentralised blockchain system, a digital crowd shipping platform can be developed as a design element in the restructured goods logistics in Würzburg. According to Walker, it is therefore always exciting to see where students can introduce blockchain into the application.

Blockchain as a silver bullet?

However, a blockchain application is not necessarily the solution to every problem, Prof. Dr. Karsten Machholz from the Faculty of Business and Engineering thinks: “For many challenges, the goal can also be achieved with the databases and secure, encrypted processes which currently exist. The risk of being hacked is certainly significantly higher here.”

He is of the opinion that “the expectations of the new technology, which were initially too high, have now stabilised to a realistic level.” This, according to him, is normal for all new technologies, however. “In order to successfully make use of blockchain technology, it must be accessible to a wide range of actors. Many big players in various industries have already come together in order to establish new standards for their sectors,” says Machholz. He hopes to give students a better understanding of the topic and explain the benefits of the advanced technology through a future lecture series.

Technology of the future

FHWS also plans to become part of the DigiCerts alliance. Thus, together with the Fraunhofer Institute, Technische Hochschule Lübeck and RWTH Aachen University, blockchain certifications should be made possible. The two doctoral students Schütz and Fertig will have leading roles in this project. This would make FHWS part of one of the few blockchain projects that are live and in use. Fertig is of the opinion that all of the relevant information for drawing up the necessary technical nodes is already available. However, the current coronavirus crisis has got in the way: “As soon as the situation improves, we want to integrate FHWS there as a partner,” the computer scientist says.

In addition, the two doctoral students intend to continue researching patient consent forms based on blockchain and to continue collaborating with the Ministry of Health. “Our first practical step would really be to go into hospitals like the University Hospital Würzburg, for example. There, we would look at what problems there are with patient consent forms,” says Schütz. “This would then be analysed and evaluated through expert interviews in order to look at where blockchain technology and therefore dPaCos can be used.”

It should therefore be possible to make everyday life easier in many regards through the innovative use of blockchain technology. Particularly through the versatile and at the same time specific potential uses, even more can be expected from blockchain in the future even though it is already used extensively. It is therefore not only the technology of the future, but also the technology of today. Including at FHWS, as Schütz describes: “FHWS is getting started in the field of blockchain technology not just in teaching, but also in current research.”

Quote Andreas Schütz: “FHWS is getting started in the field of blockchain technology not just in teaching, but also in current research.”

Blockchain technology

Blockchain is a technology which has been the subject of a lot of discussion for several years. It makes it possible to store, process, share and manage any type of information in a publicly available database. These are encrypted and chained together in a continuous list of datasets. Each participant in the blockchain has the same access permissions for the database. Owing to the neutral information and data processing system, this cannot be hacked.

This technology provides the option of bypassing so-called middlemen or even intermediaries (e.g. banks, notaries, etc.) and allows for secure action. The transparency of the database is maintained thanks to constant monitoring by the so-called miners.

The task of a miner is to verify the stored information block by block by solving the encrypted code in return for a specific amount of Bitcoin. Each block is verified through mining and is also sealed – the block and the information it contains are thus unalterable forever and are publicly stored in the blockchain.

“It is therefore a database with the highest possible degree of decentralised distribution in which various participants interact with one another and can verify processes,” says Andreas Schütz.

Photo of Birte Kock

An article by 
Birte Kock