At HackNYU 2018, a team of students from three local schools—Hunter College, New York University, and St. John’s University—set out to solve a common problem: when you donate to a charity, it’s often unclear where the money goes and how it is spent.
That’s why Srinivas Piskala Ganesh Babu, Jeane Carlos, Deren Lin, and David Margolin spent 36 hours building IntentCoin—an app that uses blockchain to record donations into an open and transparent record, giving donors more control over their funds, and making charities more accountable for how those contributions are applied.
The app accepts donations and holds them in a protected account until the designated charity forms an “intent” to spend them. If at least 20% of donors approve the intent, the funds are released. Otherwise, the charities can reframe their intention and try again.
“While the approval process is not 100% democratic,” says Margolin, “donors do have enough power, collectively, to prevent nefarious spending of their funds.”
Leveraging blockchain for social good
Lin and Margolin met as juniors in the computer science department at Hunter College. Lin was eager to work with blockchain and wanted a project that would solve “a real issue” in the world today. Margolin had been coding since the age of 12, when he got his first smartphone and went online to try to upgrade it; he’s been entering hackathons ever since.
At the hackathon, the pair joined up with Jeane Carlos, who was studying mathematics at St. John’s University, and Srinivas Piskala Ganesh Babu, a graduate student in the Computer Science program at New York University. Lin and Margolin focused on importing campaign information and blockchain metadata in Firebase, Google’s mobile app development platform (This stores the charity and donor information stored in the blockchain's ledger.)
Meanwhile, Babu and Carlos implemented the voting process to determine the “intent” of donations, integrating this with the blockchain. The team created a database on Firebase, a database on the Ethereum Network and two front-end interfaces: one for mobile, and one for web. Google Cloud Functions HTTP Triggers allowed them to build a serverless proxy as a means of communication between all this technology.
For Margolin, it made sense to start with Firebase: he was familiar with the platform and its Spark plan provided ample funding. “I think Firebase is the most efficient way to introduce Google Cloud to students,” he says. “It allows those who want to focus on front-end to avoid the hassle of setting up back-end infrastructure and sorting through devops scripts, SQL syntax, and authentication verification documentation. Firebase also makes starting incredibly quick, thus debunking the idea that the beginning is always the hardest.”
“For any hackathon project, people can save themselves hours of hassle configuring a database just by using Firebase.”Jeane Carlos, St. John’s University
Carlos agrees: “For any hackathon project, people can save themselves hours of tedious work configuring a database just by using Firebase. Firebase and integrated GCP have relatively simple to understand docs. You can actually copy and paste code, and it works.”
As the students develop a business plan and pursue their degrees, they face a few challenges with their project. For one thing, blockchain applications—originally designed to track cryptocurrencies—need to develop conversion tools to work with national currencies. But the team remains optimistic about their endeavor. “I’m excited about the potential of blockchain technology in the charity space,” says Margolin, “because a sector built on generosity has become so full of cheaters and scammers. Fundraising platforms are instrumental in supporting the many great organizations that give aid to those in need. Any improvement could enable the public to put more trust, more money, and inevitably more support into areas of our country and the rest of the world.”
“I’m excited about the potential of blockchain technology in the charity space, because a sector built on generosity has become so full of cheaters and scammers.”David Margolin, Hunter College