Blockchain is perhaps the hippest thing in tech these days. From being used to kickstart the cryptocurrency revolution, to applications in finance, accounting, insurance, supply chain and even for wildlife conservation, blockchain technology is everywhere.
The immutable property of blockchain lends itself superbly to processes and operations that rely on an authentic record of events and transactions. And that also includes elements where traditionally society has relied on non-tech solutions.
As voices against sexual violence and feminism gain prominence within the country, it opens a new opportunity for blockchain. Yes, like transaction details and records of manufacturing, blockchain can be used to track, authenticate complaints about sexual assaults, map the areas most impacted and also help in legal proceedings that soon follow.
That’s the goal behind Smashboard, one of the few blockchain platforms working in the social innovation sector in India.
Speaking to Inc42, founder Noopur Tiwari said that patriarchy and social norms have made life more difficult for victims of sexual crimes. In fact, Tiwari believes that this is a democratisation of the blockchain tech, given that typically women are often stereotyped as being not tech-savvy.
“Technology doesn’t do anything on its own. But it is something that needs to be shaped for and by women and feminists of all genders. It’s not that women aren’t adapted to tech. It’s that tech is too dominated by male workers.”
She added that the small percentage of women who enter the tech industry are more geared towards building a career, than making a difference. Tiwari, who founded Idea Chakki in 2013 which was funded by Ratan Tata, is based in Paris, France but told us the company is looking at India provides a digital video menu for restaurants and allows customers to gift food and beverage experiences across the world.
Other directors at Idea Chakki which include names like Gunjan Mehrish, Balkishan Sahni and Monica Narula are also contributing to the Smashboard mission.
Tiwari told us that while the startup is registered in France, it would be incorporating separate entities in each geography it enters as this would preserve the decentralised aspect of blockchain.
Social Innovation Through Blockchain?
Started in November 2019, Smashboard calls itself a feminist social media application with blockchain-driven features for survivors of sexual assault and violence. Tiwari told us the idea is to bring people trying to fight rape culture and sexual violence together and to create a space where those seeking and those in a position to provide help can come together.
Smashboard helps fix one of the most acute pain points in the aftermath of sexual assault crimes. Not being able to officially report cases of assault because of embarrassment and ambiguity about the process are the major reasons why sexual assault victims refrain from coming forward to raise their voices.
Smashboard — aimed at people of all genders fighting against patriarchy, provides a dashboard to users with various functionalities. Users are given access to mental health experts, lawyers and journalists who can be reached in case of emergencies or follow-ups. The application claims to keep the user identity pseudo-anonymous and also provides them with an encrypted personal space to record time-stamped evidence.
Tiwari told Inc42, “We are providing the support we felt we didn’t have. Being able to use pseudo-anonymity rather than become martyrs and expose ourselves for the voyeuristic satisfaction of people who don’t really care is one thing we make possible.”
She added that Smashboard is also making it easier to access and collate options for legal counseling, advice from a community, mental health care, insurance adapted for women and people of non-normative genders. “Survivors are exhausted and we don’t want anyone to be isolated because systemic violence cannot be fought by individuals alone. We all have to pitch in. So we are building a digital space that has both social and tech features.”
Given this goal, Tiwari said using blockchain seemed like a natural choice. “We saw blockchain as a great alternative to other ways of record-keeping, especially since our implementation is heavily geared towards zero-knowledge proof.”
Smashboard Blends Feminism With Blockchain
Tiwari added that Smashboard wanted a way to indisputably link anonymised artefacts and documents to the right user at any point, irrespective of whether they have chosen to lift their pseudo-anonymity or not. And blockchain provided a way for the team to do that.
The company is using the public blockchain to start with, and is exploring private permissionless chain for some specific use-cases depending on how big this gets and how soon it will need to scale up. “But that we can’t know at the moment. Our developer is doing his best to keep the tech and the feminist aspects tied in together.”
Being a former journalist, Tiwari said that while blockchain is being touted as an ideal platform to tackle fake news, a lot of fake news dissemination happens via closed networks by participants who are more than willing to spread such information, despite knowing the news is fake. She added that while blockchain has its benefits, the industry needs to see the actual potential of the technology for social innovation, before it becomes a viable tool for social impact.
The #MeToo movement in India may not have had the same widespread impact on industry and society as it has done in Western countries, but it has demonstrated that there are plenty of organisations, startups and people willing to work and fight for survivors. Smashboard tries to go a step beyond and also wants to create a digital community both at the global and hyperlocal levels to address more acute problems that the movement brought to light.
She further added “Of course, blockchain will not stop some people from claiming that allegations are made up or false. Smashboard fills gaps that as survivors and feminists fighting patriarchal violence are needed.”
It’s not a magic wand but it has a massive potential to become an incredibly empowering and empathic space.
Creating An Online Safe Space
On business model and funding, Tiwari says that Smashboard is not just a blockchain startup with the social aspect of the app being its real strength. The startup’s current business model is freemium, offering a basic service for free and with professional services, accessible through payments or subscriptions. It also offers access to exclusive content and news stories from around the world, highlighting the battle that women all over are fighting.
Tiwari said that they will be releasing basic features in the first version with more features and languages progressively. Smashboard plans to launch in Europe a few months down the line, she added.
Smashboard is currently funded by friends and family but is actively looking at seed funding. Tiwari told Inc42, “We wanted to go to investors and funders with a most valuable player proposition, a solid business plan and also be able to show that people need this. We have done that now.”
As a non-profit startup, Smashboard aims to generate revenue in the future to put back in the business and grow its presence, Tiwari told us. The team is working on various models to achieve that purpose but the implementation will take time. “The purpose of establishing the application will not be dissolved due to the revenue approach,” Tiwari added. She said that more than 50% of the services will remain free while the rest would be available on a fee in due course of time to attract quality guidance experts. She added that to offset the cost of legal and other services in the future, a number of experts would nominate pro-bono time with survivors who cannot afford to pay for the services.
Being a social media platform, the two most prominent factors that come into play is the increasing penetration of mobile phones and the internet, but Tiwari is looking at the addressable base of women smartphone users, which will be the startup’s core target audience.
“The number of monthly active social media users is expected to reach around three billion by 2021, which is around a third of the world’s entire population. Social media platforms are in massive demand as they connect people on the basis of shared interests—making all kinds of work and exchange easier. Smartphone users–162.72 Mn women use them in India. And if 1 in 3 woman faces sexual violence, we would like to propose the app to all these people.”