The Case for Digital Health Passes Built on Blockchain Tech

As governments, businesses and individuals work to stop the spread of COVID-19, some modern technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence could prove to be very useful, especially within the hospitality and travel industries. IBM, which has seven decades of industry experience working with hospitality organizations, is working to deploy technology focused on “proof of vaccination” and “vaccine distribution.” To learn more about what the company has been doing, Hospitality Technology spoke with Greg Land, Global Industry Leader - Aviation, Hospitality & Travel Related Services at IBM.

What are some of the challenges hotels will be facing when it comes to receiving and validating "proof of vaccination" by travelers?

We know that people who’ve been cooped up for months because of the pandemic are eager to leave their homes and start exploring again. That is great news for the hotel industry, but there are currently some big societal questions around supplying proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result. If hotels wind up requiring guests to show they’ve gotten a test or their shots, it’ll be all the more important that companies be equipped to work with secure digital health passes, which can be accessed on the guest’s own mobile phone.  It will be important for hotels and the rest of the travel industry that all digital travel credential platforms are able to coordinate and work with each other. This will ensure that guests are able to seamlessly check-in to any hotel no matter which health pass they wind up using. It’s just one reason why digital health passes built on adaptable and secure blockchain networks are preferable.

What technologies are available to hoteliers to help address/solve these challenges?

Before we talk about any specific technology, we all need to come to terms with the fact that we must embrace an open, collaborative mindset. This is not a zero-sum game achieved by any single company. Rather an environment that fosters an ecosystem of interdependent players who need to be able to share data in real-time—no matter what brand of tool used.

By far the most important issue right now is that people are getting tested and eventually will be vaccinated. Scaling up digital health pass solutions beyond the pilot phase is the most pressing priority in getting the travel industry back up and running.

IBM has shared an open and interoperable digital health pass that utilizes blockchain, artificial intelligence, and cloud technologies. It can be used today to help individuals provide proof of vaccination or test results as part of managing their health records. The tool also enables employers, airlines, entertainment venues, and travel destinations to safely reopen for business.

There are a few other health passes being piloted right now and I can’t stress enough how critical it is for hotels and other members of the hospitality ecosystem to think carefully as they embrace these technologies. It’s important to ensure that they select those that are able to connect with other players. The best thing the hotel industry can be doing right now is working together to rally around these tools in a way that bridges across multiple platforms. This will not be a winner take all playbook. It’s vital that the various digital health pass tools need to interoperate with local and regional platforms. IBM is working with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to make sure this happens.

How is IBM working with hotels to help them with these issues?

At IBM we’ve got a deep bench of people who know this industry inside and out, who’ve all been working hard on a holistic approach to help the hotel industry and other travel providers regain the traveler’s trust and get the world back to traveling. The travel industry has such a vast ecosystem of players, including car rental companies, cruise lines, and airlines, that can all benefit from the adoption of these digital travel credentials. All of these stakeholders are interested in adopting creative tools that are touchless, reliable, and play a role in making sure it’s safe to travel. 

Our approach was to build IBM’s Digital Health Pass using our enterprise-grade blockchain technology. We were able to fast-track the solution because it relies on a foundation hardwired for easy collaboration and sharing of important data across technology platforms. IBM is now using it to help organizations quickly verify health credentials for employees, customers, and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization. Privacy is central to the solution, and the digital wallet can allow travelers to maintain control of their personal health information and share it in a way that is secured, verifiable, and trusted. Travelers can share their health pass to return to travel and the activities they love, without requiring exposure of the underlying personal data used to generate the credential.

Chip Rogers, CEO, AHLA sent an open letter to Biden's transition team saying hotels should become vaccination distribution centers - what is your take on this request?

I think all organizations in every industry have to carefully consider how they help in all parts of the world. For IBM’s part we have donated considerable resources, just one example is the High Performance Computing Consortium where we opened supercomputing resources to scientists for modeling massive clinical datasets for the development of Covid-19 vaccines. The more organizations collaborate and open up their way of doing business the faster we’ll be able to overcome the impacts of the pandemic.

How could IBM technologies help hotels distribute vaccines?

We have been advancing an open strategy since the outset of the pandemic. With regard to vaccine distribution, we’ve partnered with pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccine management capabilities that rely on artificial intelligence, cloud and blockchain, to assign digital birth certificates to each vial of vaccine. The network enables participants to quickly trace a vial’s journey from a production facility to an individual patient’s arm. Organizing and analyzing this type of data in real time is critical in the rare event a patient experiences a reaction to the vaccine.

Theoretically, if a hospitality organization decided to work with health authorities and serve as a vaccine distribution point for people, this type of system could easily extend to other participants such as individual hotels or hotel chains.

There will continue to be a need to organize these processes. People will need to reserve a time to show up, they’ll need to physically get their shot, they’ll want proof of that shot, and then—in a lot of cases—they’re going to need a straightforward way to learn about when and where to get their second booster shot. All of that organizational work happens inside IBM’s solutions.

Not only are we providing the technologies for hotels, airlines and cruise lines to provide proof that a guest has been vaccinated. But it also works as a tool for health authorities to actually do the tough work of making sure people get vaccinated in an orderly and efficient way.

Getting our societies back up and running safely will require all organizations to lean a lot on the tools that interoperate in order to help keep us—and our health statuses—organized.

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