Still Confused About the Blockchain? These Hackathon Apps Show Its Power

In 48 hours, developers coded replacements for Twitter, equity contracts, and studbooks using the Ethereum blockchain.

Aug 25 2015, 3:35pm

Photo: Ardonik/Flickr

We live in a day and age where it only takes 48 hours to program a decentralized horse registry.

All it takes is the Ethereum blockchain, also known as the "world computer," which seeks to use the technology that enables cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to support other applications.

You've probably heard of Bitcoin. You might have heard of Ethereum, whose developers have far-reaching goals like disrupting the internet. (Interestinginternship opportunity?) Blockchains are the open, tamper-proof, distributed databases—meaning they don't require a central keeper—that underpins each of them.

At a recent 48-hour hackathon, developers explored the power of the Ethereum blockchain, building decentralized replacements for Twitter, lawyers, and horse registries.

"This is not a regular bleeding-edge event," said Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys, which hosted the hackathon (dubbed dAppathon) a week ago in New York. "It's sharp all over the place." ConsenSys is Brooklyn-based blockchain production studio that toils away on everything dApps (decentralized apps) and designs tools like BlockApps that helps developers to code up their own.

Tweether, for instance, is a censorship-resistant version of Twitter created by hackathon participant Stefan George. He kicked off his presentation with a list of countries where censorship is commonplace. The Twitter copycat uses the Ethereum blockchain, which again, is totally tamper-proof. So when you "Tweeth" with the app, it uses the blockchain so that no one can later remove it, foiling censors.

Lawyerless, created by hackathoners Jeff Ward, Mike Goldin, and Jess Grushack, helps regular people design their own equity contracts using Ethereum's well-hyped "smart contract" feature. All they do is specify the owners and the portion of the fund to distribute to each party.

Once you program a smart contract to do carry out a task—say deliver funds to someone on a certain date—it will do it. This is executed without the help of a third party. Furthermore, these contracts aren't vulnerable to fraud and corruption, as long as you set it up correctly at the beginning, and they're fairly inexpensive too. "If you're distributing $15 billion between a thousand people, it might cost you a hundred bucks or something," Goldin said. "So yeah. That's kind of disruptive."

Finally, the decentralized horse registry, which probably caps the list of things that you didn't realize needed disrupting. Every time someone buys a horse, the horse's genealogy and new owner is added to a studbook. While today's studbooks are proprietary, costly, and managed by some central organization, participant Andre Junge's decentralized version is transparent and streamlines transfers. It won the audience choice award.

These were three out of a dozen or so ideas that came from one 48-hour hackathon. While most of the dAppathon-sprung projects had pretty drab interfaces, the hackathon made building disruptive programs look really easy. Supposedly that's the benefit of having a decentralized computer out in the world to execute commands for you.