Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and city officials are promoting blockchain technology, ostensibly to increase transparency in government. A first attempt is to incorporate the city’s records of historic properties into a blockchain ledger. The city announced in June that it was working with a private company.
“Previously, as the mayor has indicated, many of these were in bank boxes, so easy access for the public is really important here, as is clarity in the blockchain process,” said the city’s Nic Ciccone. “The blockchain process ensures that every step in this process actually takes place.”
When asked why that isn’t already happening, Ciccone said it is.
“Technically, in the backend, this would ensure that all of our ts are crossed and our i’s are dotted,” he said.
BlockApps’ Jeffry Powell, who helped the city for free, said in June, “One of the benefits of blockchain is the immutability, or permanent record, of data. Because the records are compiled on the blockchain, because there are different transactions…because it’s the blockchain, that information is permanent. It cannot be deleted. It cannot be changed.”
Although BlockApps developed the city’s blockchain capacity for free, that’s no guarantee future services will be free.
Even if BlockApps is no longer in existence, the infrastructure for the blockchain will remain intact, Powell added. “The city could always keep this data. This is her property. At the moment there are no fees at all.”
He said it was impossible to say how much future efforts would cost.
The records were released last week after initially being promoted just ahead of the US Mayors’ Conference in June.
Although city officials said the original list would include 14 properties, the city’s website lists 21 to date.
“Right now, the focus is on adding visualizations and giving residents a better idea of what changes have been made to each property on the city’s historical registry,” city officials said.
Effort “riddled with errors”
City officials emphasized that the effort is about transparency and accessibility, but their own historical resource commissioners have not been included in the effort.
City spokeswoman Rebecca Venis said the technology doesn’t affect what the city’s Historical Resources Commission does.
Reno historian Alicia Barber, who formerly served on the commission, said she warned city officials to proceed with caution because the city’s documents were incomplete and not self-explanatory.
“When the mayor first announced this blockchain project in June, I immediately wrote to city officials advising them to consult with the city’s Historical Resources Commission before proceeding with it,” she said. “This was not just out of courtesy, but because the documents related to the register and the process of attestation of suitability are neither self-explanatory nor complete.
“Unfortunately, the city didn’t heed my advice, and as a result, the portal they created is just embarrassingly inaccurate, with errors on virtually every page,” she added
Bradley Carlson, an architect and vice chairman of the city’s Historical Resources Commission, agreed. However, he commented on the situation as a concerned citizen speaking for himself.
“As far as I know, the commissioners … we have not been consulted or advised,” he said. “We found out about it like everyone else through announcements from the mayor and even Jenny Brekhus, who was our liaison to the council, was unaware when we asked her about it.”
He said their concerns were ignored by city officials.
“The title of the document isn’t even correct,” he told This Is Reno.
The correct title is Reno Register of Historic Places, but the blockchain ledger is called “Historic Property List,” he gave as an example.
He said other errors mean the city’s launch last week should have been considered premature.
“The bugs are so widespread,” he added. “I picked up a red pencil to see what the differences between the two were [city of Reno’s] PDF and the blockchain list, and I almost ran out of red ink. Worse, someone might look at it and not realize how widespread the errors are, and think this is something put out by the city to be used as a guide… with useful information, which isn’t the case .”
Ciccone admitted, “There were a few bugs and we’ve already reached out to our development team and discussed how to fix that and make sure that’s more accurate on the site.”
Ciccone said publishing the information on the blockchain is a way to spread the information quickly.
“Having instant access to this information for our public is great, you know, [and] immediately received feedback that some of this information was incorrect. If it wasn’t publicly available, we might not have known,” he added.
Carlson said seeking expertise from the city’s own history experts would have allayed concerns beforehand, but Ciccone said consultation with the commission was unnecessary.
“I’m not aware of any boards or commissions that are privy to any software that is implemented by the city before it is implemented,” he said.
Carlson said the city’s initial public relations efforts boiled down to promoting alleged transparency and presenting the list as a permanent record. But he said what the city and BlockApps posted has already been changed.
“It has been reported that the great thing about blockchains is that they are permanent and immutable,” he said. “Only from my own experience over the past few days do I see it changing daily.
“The cake isn’t baked yet. They really need to take it down and fix the issues and announce it when it’s ready to announce.”
Bob Conrad is the publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has held communications positions for various state agencies and received his PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. In addition to leading This Is Reno, he holds a part-time position for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension Office.