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Untangling America’s first city-backed blockchain

A digital rendering of the ethereum logo over a fingerprint, surrounded by coins and QR codes.
Flickr Creative Commons
While city officials have declared that the Biggest Little Blockchain is unrelated to any alternative currency, the platform uses ethereum, which was created to support the cryptocurrency ether.

The City of Reno is creating America’s first city-backed blockchain ledger, the Biggest Little Blockchain. Unlike other blockchain platforms, the server will not store digital currency, but digital data.

The city’s Register of Historic Places is a list of buildings deemed historically significant and worthy of preservation. If landowners want to alter registered buildings, they must request what’s called a “certificate of appropriateness.” Nic Ciccone, with the city manager’s office, explained what data will become available to users.

"First, our development services team identifies that someone has submitted a certificate of appropriateness," Ciccone said. "After that, the Historical Resources Commission votes on it, then the City Council will affirm that decision, and it’ll eventually be part of the public records through the clerk’s office."

Reno historian Alicia Barber raised an alarm via Twitter that the city did not collaborate with the affected department before announcing this initiative. City officials confirmed that the Reno Historical Resources Commission was not consulted in the registry’s planning phase.

The lawn and front entrance of the McKinley Park School.
City of Reno Register of Historic Places
The McKinley Park School, designed by local architect George Ferris in 1909, is one of the properties listed on the City of Reno Register of Historic Places.

With the project’s launch, the public will be able to access all of the information about these status changes. Over the past few years, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve has drawn national attention for her public endorsement of cryptocurrency, NFTs and blockchain innovation. She wants to encourage more blockchain companies to take root in Reno in order to help diversify and recession-proof the local economy.

"Gaming is incredibly important," Schieve said. "But I also thought it’s really important that we attract companies that are outside of gaming so that when we see a downturn, we have a much better opportunity for being successful — that really got us into trouble in the recession."

BlockApps is the company that built this platform throughout the last year, and with no charge to the city. Jeff Powell is the VP of sales, and he said that Reno is particularly fertile ground for blockchain projects.

"The City of Reno — which is a very forward-looking entity and is very interested in being a tech hub and driving technology in the city — became interested in exploring what it would be like for them to put some of their municipal records onto the blockchain and make them available to the public," Powell said.

City officials have declared that the Biggest Little Blockchain is unrelated to any alternative currency, though the platform uses ethereum, which was created to support the cryptocurrency ether.

"What we are is a platform built off of ethereum on the blockchain that companies use to build solutions, or they hire us to build solutions for them," Powell added.

The current crypto crash could be a symptom of the public’s plummeting faith in decentralized finance and the technology designed to prop it up. Nate Jones is an alternative currency instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He said that when he teaches, he has to reframe his definition of what a blockchain is every few months. Jones wonders if any government can responsibly engage with technology that’s changing so rapidly.

"Right now, we have a big problem with trust in our digital landscape, our digital society," Jones said. "There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt in these computers and in the people behind them."

Though alternative currencies have shed more than a trillion dollars this year, the technology designed to track and trade their valuation could be here to stay. But Jones said that it’s important for users to know that the information stored on the blockchain could stay there forever.

"The actual data itself is more than likely going to be retained on their servers," he added. "If you commit data to the ledger, it’s never going anywhere."

Looking to the future, Jones said he’s worried that governmental exploitation of this technology could lead to a nightmare scenario for individual privacy. While the European Union has regulations on digital platforms that protect a private citizen’s right to be forgotten, American courts do not yet recognize this concept.

"If people were to commit sensitive data to the blockchain that ought not to be there, it’s not going to go anywhere," Jones said. "It’s just one of those double-edged swords. It’s a very powerful tool, but you have to wield it in the right way."

Reno is broadly understood to be a place where people come to take chances — whether that’s on tech startups or blackjack tables. Schieve believes blockchain technology has a lot of promise, but she also doesn’t dismiss its shortcomings.

"Not everything is going to work, right?" Schieve said. "But I think when you stop trying is when you fail."

Pending the success of the project, Schieve’s administration looks to expand the scope of the Biggest Little Blockchain and add more features to the network, such as regular maintenance, permitting and licensing.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Shelby Herbert is a former student reporter at KUNR Public Radio and the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science.
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