Most Influential Projects 2021

14 Atala Prism

Atala Prism will provide secure digital identities to 5 million students and 750,000 teachers across 3,500 schools.

For using blockchain to improve educational outcomes—and drive positive socioeconomic change

Silicon Valley doesn’t have a lock on cutting-edge technological innovation.

Ethiopia is working on a new blockchain-based identification system that could pave the way to social and financial mobility for students—particularly the 80 percent living in rural areas.

The problem? The country had no system for keeping or sharing performance records. And that made it all but impossible for students to prove their academic credentials to potential employers or higher-learning institutions—which often severely limited their prospects. Looking to change that, the Ministry of Education in April announced Atala Prism, a national digital database developed by Hong Kong’s IOHK, the company behind Cardano cryptocurrency.

The new system will provide secure digital identities to 5 million students and 750,000 teachers across 3,500 schools. Teachers can monitor student performance, pinpoint underachieving areas and better allocate educational resources. As the largest blockchain deal ever signed by a government, the project is demonstrating how crypto assets can help drive positive socioeconomic change across Africa and beyond.

Ethiopia ranks as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but still faces high poverty rates. And with 46 percent of the country’s population under age 15, coming up with a way to track and potentially improve education outcomes could be a gamechanger—and mark significant progress toward the Digital Ethiopia 2025 transformation strategy.

With the project scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021, John O’Connor, IOHK’s director of African operations, talks about the impetus behind the project and what it could mean for Ethiopia’s future.

What problem did you hope to solve?

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education had no data or visibility into academic performance until the final year of school, when students are leaving the educational system. We’re capturing data that didn’t exist before, and we’re enabling the Ministry of Education to start saying, “Within the Amhara region we’ve got really good math outcomes, but in the Oromia region those outcomes are incredibly poor. Why is that?” And they can start to dig into those questions.

From a student perspective, you want to be able to see analytics about your performance, you want to be able to see your digital credentials—that you got an “A” in this subject, or you got a “first” in this degree—and that information also needs to sit around other features and functionality, like class scheduling. In the future, we may also integrate learning management systems, so students can use the system to figure out what homework they need to do—and do it on the tablet.

How did you convince Ethiopia’s government that blockchain was the right solution?

States are starting to understand that digital identity based on blockchain is not as disruptive or iconoclastic as they might have thought. Instead, it enables governments to fulfill their traditional role of engendering trust when it comes to documentation, while participating in this new digital world.

How did you establish a framework with such a steep learning curve?

On projects like this, you can’t just push the responsibility back on the client. Under the hood, a lot of the fundamentals are still there. Above the bonnet, it looks very different. We did quite a lot of bespoke building to be able to create a useful experience. What we’re trying to do is quite complicated, and even the statement of work required multiple, multiple rounds of refining. The process required a lot of engagement, not just from the Ministry of Education, but with so many stakeholders—students, for example. This isn’t just about delivering a product. This is about doing something that has a legacy that is sustainable and can be replicated in other similar markets.