Interview on the Groninger Stadjerspas, a blockchain based service for low income citizens

The Stadjerspas is a blockchain based service for low income citizens from the city of Groningen, the Netherlands. We have interviewed Paul Spoelstra and Bram Scholtens. Paul is projectmanager for the Stadjerspas for the municipality of Groningen. Bram has also been involved on behalf of Virtueel Groningen (a strategic programme on innovating public service delivery). We have asked Paul and Bram about their experiences working with this blockchain-based service.


What is the Stadjerspas? What does it do and how did it come to be?
Paul: “The Stadjerspas is basically a voucher system for people with minimum income in the municipality of Groningen. It has been around since the nineties, in different forms. It grants access to social and cultural activities for free or with a discount. For example you can go to the swimming pool, or go to the cinema with a discount. It has a physical pass with a QR code that can be scanned. It also has an online component, an online web shop that citizens can use to buy tickets. We have the system in its current form since 2016. For now it is only for citizens with minimum income, we are exploring the options to make it wider available for all citizens. This is already technically possible.”

The Stadjerspas runs on a blockchainapplication. Why did you choose for a solution with blockchain?
Bram: “At the end of 2013, the Stadjerspas was supposed to disappear because of cutbacks. After discussions in the Council, is was decided the Stadjerspas should remain, just for lower income groups. The Socialist Party played a crucial role here.  An application needed to be fixed in a very, very short time.”

Paul was responsible to get a solution live in the air within a few weeks. He successfully managed to get an online web shop up and running. However, in part because of time constraints, it had a lot of errors in the beginning. “We were mostly able to fix those, but after a while we decided to look for a new solution”, Paul tells. “So we wrote a tender, after we agreed on a program of requirements that we designed together with users. The company Dutchchain offered us a solution that used blockchain. At the time it was a very new technology. It looked promising because we could do the transactions in a secure way. We started using it in 2016. After it was implemented, the hype really started building so all of a sudden we were invited on national television and a lot of conferences to speak about it.” Bram adds: “that was a nice side effect, it helped put Groningen on the map as a digital and innovative city.”

Can you tell us a little bit about how blockchain is used in its current application?
Paul explains: “every user gets a personal wallet once a year with credit and when new or temporary offers are added. For example, a citizen gets three tickets to the swimming pool in his or her wallet. When you go to the swimming pool, the QR-code is scanned. This transaction is stored in the blockchain. At the same time, an amount of money is made ready by the municipality to transfer to the swimming pool. The money transfer is done ‘normally’, it’s only the overview of the transactions that is put into the blockchain. At the end of each month we receive an overview with all the transactions, and with that the invoice to all the relevant parties.”

Paul: “the system is hosted externally. Externally, we only have an emailadres and the QR-code. Apart from that, there is no personal information. This was done because of security and privacy. So in that way, if the system gets hacked, you’ll only have a bunch of emailadresses. That is bad enough, but less bad than a lot more personal information. The personal information (names and such) are hosted and managed by the municipality. So there is a connection between the external system and our own system.”

What are the downsides of working with blockchain?
Bram and Paul agree that the current solution has a few problems. Paul: “currently, we cannot undo transactions or delete accounts. This does not match well with the right to be forgotten. So that is a problem. On a practical level, it is difficult when an error has been made. For example, sometimes people accidentally enter a wrong number, so three tickets instead of one are billed. So sometimes we get emails from users who complain that they only have used the swimming pool once, but have lost all their credit for the rest of the year. The system is built in such a way that you cannot restore this per individual. In theory, we could have it build in such a way that you update the existing ledger with a new transaction so that the total is correct again. However that would have been very costly, so for now we decided to solve these kinds of issues differently”

What opportunities do you see for blockchain in the municipality in the future?
Bram: “well, as it is now, it is nice to have, and good to learn from it. But in this case this application blockchain doesn’t have a lot of added value. On the other hand it doesn’t hinder us. We can have the Stadjerspas also without the blockchain: there are other technologies that achieve the same without using blockchain. Of course, the tech has improved a lot since we started using it 3,5 years ago. Even so, there still is the matter of principle if you can and should be a partner in an equal playing field as a government. A decentralised network can be challenging to use in our case. Personally I don’t think an public blockchain is very suitable for most uses cases for government, you’ll probably will use a permissioned blockchain in some form. This is because as a government, you are often responsible for many processes. So if we want to use it for public services, you should be able to fix mistakes, for example. If that is not possible, it is very hard to use.”

What are for you considerations to choose or not to choose for a blockchain solution?
Both: “it just needs to work, and must be easy to use. If it uses blockchain, that is fine, but if it can be done with just a regular database: that’s ok as well. For us blockchain is not an end in itself. If a solution uses blockchain we are open for that, but for us, the most important thing is for it to function well.”