The Atlantic

A Map That Tracks Everything

Blockchain-based mapping hopes to replace GPS. Can it be trusted?
Source: Dong Wenjie / Getty

Cryptocurrencies have had a rough year. Bitcoin has crashed more than 75 percent since its peak, and its competitors are faring no better. Even if the bubble has burst on non-fiat currency, the technology underlying those coins, the blockchain—which offers a way to record and validate transactions without a central authority, such as a bank or government—still excites many speculators outside finance.

In cities, for example, evangelists have promised an array of “blockchain urbanism” innovations. Some are outrageously ambitious: Crypto-entrepreneurs are migrating to marginal zones and developing regions where light regulation and low taxes permit them to build new states and cities in the blockchain’s own image. Others are more modest, applying the blockchain to urban inefficiencies in planning, zoning, building performance, and energy trading.

Blockchain is also backing a new mode of mapping. Crypto-cartographers hope to use it for spatial verification—confirming that things are where they say they are, when they claim to be there. How might this be useful? Well, you. Or, as you pass by your local family-owned coffee shop, the owner could “airdrop” some Bitcoin coupons to your phone, and you could stop by to cash in before the offer expires a half hour later.

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