Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and city officials are promoting blockchain technology allegedly to increase transparency in government. An initial effort is to put the city’s records for historic properties onto a blockchain ledger. The city in June announced it was partnering with a private company.
“Previously, as the mayor has alluded to, a lot of these have been in bankers boxes, so ease of access to the public is really important here, as well as clarity with the blockchain process,” said the city’s Nic Ciccone. “The blockchain process ensures that each step in that process actually happens.”
When asked why that isn’t already happening, Ciccone said it is.
“From a technical aspect this would ensure on the back end all of our t’s are crossed and our i’s are dotted,” he said.
Jeffry Powell with BlockApps, which helped the city free of charge, said in June, “one of the benefits of the blockchain is the immutability or permanent record of the data. As the records are compiled on the blockchain, as there are different transactions … because it’s the blockchain, this information is permanent. It cannot be deleted. It cannot be altered.”
Although BlockApps developed the city’s blockchain capacity for free, that’s not a guarantee future services will also be free.
Even if BlockApps ceases to exist, the infrastructure for the blockchain should still remain intact, Powell added. “The city could always retain that data. That’s their property. At the moment there are no fees at all.”
He said it was impossible to say how much future efforts will cost.
The records were made public last week after initially being promoted just before the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June.
Though city officials said the original list would include 14 properties, 21 are listed on the city’s website to date.
“For now the focus will be on adding visuals and giving residents a better idea of what changes have been made to each of the properties on the City’s historic registry,” city officials said.
Effort ‘riddled with errors’
City officials emphasized the effort is about transparency and accessibility, but its own historic resources commissioners were not included in the effort.
City spokesperson Rebecca Venis said the technology does not impact what the city’s historic resources commission does.
Reno historian Alicia Barber, who used to serve on the commission, said she warned city officials they should proceed with caution because the city’s documents are incomplete and not self-explanatory.
“When the Mayor first announced this blockchain project in June, I immediately wrote to City staff and advised them to consult with the City’s Historical Resources Commission before they went any further with it,” she said. “That wasn’t just as a courtesy, it’s because the documents related to the register and the Certificate of Appropriateness process aren’t self-explanatory or complete.
“The City didn’t follow my advice, unfortunately, and as a result, the portal they created is just embarrassingly inaccurate, with errors on practically every page,” she added
Bradley Carlson, an architect who is vice chair of the city’s historic resources commission, agreed. He commented on the situation, however, as a concerned citizen speaking on behalf of himself.
“My understanding is the commissioners … we weren’t consulted or advised,” he said. “We found out through announcements of the mayor, like everybody else, and even Jenny Brekhus, who was our council liaison, was not aware of it when we asked her about it.”
He said their concerns have been 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 cited as one example.
He said other errors means that last week’s launch by the city should’ve been considered premature.
“The errors are so rampant,” he added. “I took a red pen to see what the differences were between the [city of Reno’s] PDF and the blockchain list, and I almost ran out of red ink. Even worse, somebody might look at it and not realize how rampant the errors are and think that this is something that’s issued by the city that is to be used as a guide … with useful information, which is not.”
Ciccone admitted, “there were a couple errors, and we have already connected with our development team and discussed how we will fix that and make sure that that is more accurate on the site.”
Ciccone said publishing the information on the blockchain was a way to get the information out quickly.
“Immediate access to this information for our public is great, you know, [and] getting this feedback right away that some of this information was incorrect. If it was not publicly available, maybe we wouldn’t have known,” he added.
Carlson said soliciting expertise from the city’s own history experts would have alleviated concerns in advance, but Ciccone said consulting with the commission was unnecessary.
“I’m not aware of any boards or commission being privy to any software being implemented by the city prior to it being implemented,” he said.
Carlson said the city’s initial public relations efforts boiled down to promoting alleged transparency and the list being a permanent record. But he said what the city and BlockApps posted has already been altered.
“It’s been reported that the great thing about blockchains is that they’re permanent and unchangeable,” he said. “Just from my own experience in the last couple of days, I see it changing on a daily basis.
“The cake is not baked yet. They really need to take it down and solve the problems and announce it when it’s ready to announce.”
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.