Building Applications and Community at Yale’s First Blockchain Bootcamp
More than 125 students, faculty, and community members filled Kroon Hall’s Burke Auditorium on September 29 and 30, ready to dive into blockchain — the decentralized digital ledger system that’s become a hot topic in fields from finance to sustainability. They had each given up their weekend to take part in the Open Blockchain Bootcamp, an event that was the first of its kind of at Yale. Over the course of the bootcamp, which was hosted by the Yale OpenLab through a collaboration between Tsai CITY and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY), the participants heard from experts, learned the basics of blockchain development in hands-on workshops, and built their own applications. The weekend also offered a unique opportunity to connect with Yalies and community members approaching the burgeoning technology from multiple angles, which the event’s organizers hope will fuel the growth of a cross-disciplinary community that looks beyond the hype to imagine how blockchain might enable meaningful problem-solving.
From the start, the bootcamp’s organizers aimed to empower a diverse group of participants to start experimenting and building with the technology, which enables distributed, public recording and verification of transactions. Before attendees dove in, Saturday morning began with a series of panels that laid a foundation for a thoughtful approach to this experimentation. Tiffany Li, resident fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, and Consensys’ Carlos Vivas provided an introduction to blockchain’s potential, as well as the legal and ethical implications raised by its advancement. Pointing to the risk of blockchain falling into familiar traps of Silicon Valley buzz, Li emphasized the importance of bringing policymakers and other voices into the discussion, asking the question that underlay much of the weekend’s ethos: “How can we use new technology for something that will make the world better?” The next panel brought a group of professionals to the stage to discuss sample use-cases for blockchain tools, sharing their work on applications for managing healthcare data, distributing online educational resources, and more.
From there, participants broke for lunch, heading to tables set up for topic-specific conversations on blockchain’s implications for fields like energy, cryptocurrency, ethics, and more. After a final panel discussion on different blockchain ecosystems, it was time for what Sophie Janaskie, environmental innovation fellow at CITY and CBEY and one of the event’s organizers, termed “the heart of the bootcamp:” the hands-on workshops. As they pulled out their laptops, participants separated into two groups: “Blockchain 101,” for people who had no experience with blockchain development, and “Blockchain 201,” for participants who had had some introduction to the technology, but were looking to deepen their skills. Both tracks were supported by Consensys and Byte Academy, bringing a practitioner lens to the lessons.
Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, this dual-track lineup of workshops took participants through the fundamentals of blockchain development, with a focus on real-time discovery and deployment. Students and faculty from all disciplines started from scratch in Blockchain 101, exploring how to create digital tokens and smart contracts. In Blockchain 201, participants dove into applications for secure financial transactions. Participants in both tracks deployed their work on Sunday morning, and the bootcamp culminated in an opportunity for attendees to create their own “dApp,” or decentralized application. By the end of the weekend, participants had successfully launched digital tokens, established peer-to-peer transactions, deployed dApps, and more.
Although the bootcamp lasted just two days, organizers hope that it will be a catalyst for broader activity around blockchain at Yale. The Yale OpenLab, which spearheaded the bootcamp as part of its launch this fall, is leading a number of projects through which students can apply blockchain to large-scale, collaborative projects. This year, the OpenLab is focusing on climate and energy challenges, an area in which they see blockchain as a source of significant potential for impact; current projects include the Blockchain for Open Micro-Grids working group, which aims to develop more democratic energy infrastructure and is working to equip all Puerto Rican public schools to serve as solar-powered emergency shelters. Reflecting on the bootcamp, Janaskie explains, “Our hope is that this will serve as a launching-off point for students to continue technical skill development, which can then be applied to projects incubated at the OpenLab, students’ ventures, and beyond.”
Already, Janaskie and her fellow organizers are seeing a vibrant blockchain community developing on Yale’s campus. “One of my favorite parts of the weekend was the community happy hour at the end of Saturday,” Janaskie says. “During this time, students from across the university had the chance to stand up and announce to the crowd the blockchain projects and companies that they were working on. It was exciting to see how much interest there was in this topic, as well as how supportive participants were of each other’s projects.”
As this diverse community continues to grow, CITY, CBEY, and other groups on campus are building infrastructure to support it. The bootcamp served as the official launch of the Yale Blockchain Initiative Fellowship, a grant that aims to spur the development of a student-led initiative focused on campuswide blockchain education and innovation. To date, this fledgling initiative has been incubated at the OpenLab; now, the lab’s leaders are inviting students to lead its next steps. Thanks to a gift from Yale’s Class of 1977, $5000 — along with mentorship from members of the CITY and CBEY teams — will be granted to the student group with the strongest proposal for accelerating the initiative’s development, with priorities that include documenting and connecting blockchain activities across campus, producing events and meetups, and building a process for sustainable, student-led governance of the initiative. For Janaskie, this opportunity for broader community-building is the most exciting output of the bootcamp, which she sees as just the start of an exciting era for blockchain innovation at Yale. Ultimately, she says, “we hope to foster and build the blockchain community across campus and greater New Haven, giving rise to new projects and ventures.”