Lorenzo Capunata | Dreamstime.com

Getting Ventilators to the People Is a Problem Built for Blockchain

April 1, 2020
We can’t solve a 21st-century crisis with 20th-century thinking.

Governor Cuomo’s concept of a “rolling deployment” of ventilators, the most critical and least available COVID-19 response tool, is just the kind of bold step needed, but impossible with conventional top-down administrative procedures. By contrast, the Internet of Things (IoT), and one of its most innovative tools, blockchain, are ideally suited to the need. Using them immediately may also pave the way for large-scale commercial applications in the future.

The present passive Trump Administration approach is to largely leave the responsibility to the states.The states must request ventilators from the federal stockpile or buy them on the open market, making them bid against each other for the scarce apparatus, needlessly delaying the process, and driving up prices so they can’t buy as many units. No wonder Cuomo and other governors are worried — and furious.

Cuomo would create a federally controlled pool, dispatched on a rotating basis to those states experiencing highest demand. As a state passes its peak number of serious cases, it would be compelled to return immediately the no-longer-needed machines to the pool for re-deployment to the cities and states with the next predicted highest demand.

Handling such a complex system, and especially doing it transparently and objectively so all states would feel their needs were handled fairly, would be an administrative nightmare using existing procurement and logistical systems at a time redeployments must be done in near-real-time because lives are at stake.

Fortunately, there’s the IoT, which is starting to transform every aspect of the economy and our personal lives. It is applicable to the respirator crisis for two reasons. First, the IoT lets us harvest real-time data on the location and status of “things,” such as the life-saving ventilators; analyze that data automatically; then share it  immediately (sharing is crucial: we don’t have the luxury of one group having access to data and then passing it to the next. Data access must be simultaneous!)among everyone needing that data to make better decisions.

The second aspect of the IoT that makes it ideal for the respirator crisis is that one of its key tools, blockchain, guarantees the process is transparent and can’t be jiggered to favor any hospital or state, answering concerns about hoarding.

Blockchain is ideal in this case because it is a distributed database (for example, listing all respirators in use, on the way, or in production) that is housed on multiple computers in many locations at the same time.

What’s critical for the ventilator crisis is that no single body manages the database — everyone in the network has a copy. It can only be altered by consensus of all the users, making it transparent. Anand Sukumaran of ByteAlly, a blockchain consultancy, says this kind of distributed database “is easier and faster for a variety of suppliers to share data, versus connecting disparate systems of many suppliers’ products.” The suppliers can protect their proprietary information. A single user can’t corrupt a blockchain, and cryptography makes certain every single authorized user’s copy is synchronized in real time.

Applied to the ventilator distribution issue, every state, every manufacturer, and the FEMA stockpile administrator would have shared access. Real-time data about the current number of cases in every state, those needing ventilators, etc., could also be seamlessly integrated, so supply and demand could be easily visualized and adjusted. All key participants could have a daily Zoom call and discuss the distribution. Every ventilator in use, production or distribution would have a wireless sensor added, so each item and its location could be visualized precisely on a map and rerouted instantly as needed.  

It’s similar to one that Vertrax, a supply chain management solution provider for the oil and gas bulk liquid distribution industry, created. It is used to dealing with a crisis of homes without heat in the worst winter weather: an unexpected polar vortex making demand spike just as delivery trains are derailed and delivery trucks break down. “Do you want to ration your propane to your customers because there’s been a disruption that you never knew about?“ the company’s marketing materials state. Vertrax customers can instantly integrate the latest weather, logistic and transportation data, which they can in turn share with retailers and suppliers.

ByteAlly’s Sukumaran says a public interface for ventilator distribution could be built within a week.

Which will it be? Continue to insist on an obsolete procurement system that doesn’t work and will make more die needlessly, or switch to innovative technology that’s the hope of the economy Trump says he wants to build? Dealing with the current health crisis, and also rebuilding for the future after the recession that will follow, demands the latter.

W. David Stephenson of Stephenson Strategies is an Internet of Things strategic consultant, writes an IoT column for IndustryWeek, and wrote The Future Is Smart, a book on IoT strategy

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