New app crowdsources cryptocurrency for charity


[Photo: Hans Neleman/Getty Images]

Bail Bloc uses your excess computing power to help low-income people meet bail.

The last year has shown how technology has helped undermine democracy. But tech can also be used to fight power and bolster equality, according to the coalition behind a new tool called Bail Bloc.

Bail Bloc is an app that gives people the option to donate their excess computing power to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero. The amount of Monero that’s generated is then converted into U.S. dollars and donated to a nonprofit bail fund called the Bail Project, an offshoot of the Bronx Freedom Fund that pays bail for low-income people awaiting trial. The only work participants have to do is to download the Bail Bloc application; everything else happens in the background.

Bail tends to keep lower-income people in jail while they await their court date, and is often used to intimidate them into making guilty pleas–in fact, 90% of people who can’t afford to pay bail end up pleading guilty in New York. The Bail Project is the Bronx Freedom Fund’s attempt to take their bail fund model nationwide, aiming to provide immediate relief to people who can’t afford bail in more than three dozen cities over the next five years–while also exposing just how flawed the system is.


[Image: New Inquiry]

Your average laptop only uses about 5% of its computing power. Bail Bloc increases that to about 25%, using the extra power to mine about $3 to $5 a month. That might sound like nothing, and that’s why this technique doesn’t necessarily make sense for traditional fundraising. But because bail money is revolving, which means that it is returned to its source after the person in question appears in court, each dollar that is raised can continue to be used again and again. According to the Bronx Freedom Fund’s data, one dollar that’s used for bail in the Bronx can be used two or three times per year. Bail Bloc also harnesses the power of crowdsourcing–one person may only raise a few dollars a month, but 10,000 people raise significantly more.


The artist Grayson Earle, one of the creators of the app, came up with the idea to mine cryptocurrency for a cause after the 2016 election. “After Trump was elected, I was trying to think of ways to put technology to use that was far, far away from the Facebook model of bubbles of people ‘liking’ each others’ political content; that model had given us Trump, a man backed by the KKK,” he tells Co.Design in an email. “I landed on the idea of creating software that could allow people to donate comput[ing] power to radical causes. The software would mine Monero in the background of everyday use, and at the end of every month a check would be cut to fund radical projects.”

Earle teamed with up with the magazine the New Inquiry to hone the idea; the application is now hosted on the magazine’s website. The collaborators decided to focus on bail because of the impact they could make with less money. But the tool also acts as more subtle critique of the mainstream narrative about how technology will liberate us all. In contrast to that idealistic promise, technology can actually perpetuate inequality and the status quo, for instance through racially biased algorithms and filter bubbles on Facebook. The New Inquiry‘s last software project critiqued bias in the criminal justice system through a white collar crime map. But Bail Bloc actually does turn tech into a liberating force by using it to literally free people from jail.

Bail Bloc is just one part of a larger project. “I think Bail Bloc is powerful on a few levels,” says Ezra Ritchin, project director of the Bronx Freedom Fund. “Firstly, it provides immediate relief to people who are being criminalized for their race and poverty, so they can stay in their jobs and their homes until they go to trial. I also think Bail Bloc is a statement of sorts. The people who are downloading this don’t want this system to exist at all and are willing to do something about it, to put their resources toward it.”

Using data from the Bronx Freedom Fund, the New Inquiry team ran simulations to show that if 5,000 people were to run Bail Bloc for one year, they could make enough money to free 1,800 people from pretrial detention, given that average bail is less than $1,000. The project’s website also has a simulator where you can plug in the number of participants and see what kind of impact it might have. You can keep track of how many people are donating to the effort and how many people the mined money has helped through the app’s statistics page.

For Maya Binyam, a senior editor at the New Inquiry and co-creator of Bail Bloc, the application is a means of using the tools of technology to fight back against the misuse of political power. “There exists an obvious problem of speech, and also of resources, when the ‘tech world’ promises metaphorical freedom while the state it works in concert with ensures that literal freedom–from surveillance, from imprisonment, and from policing–is denied,” she tells Co.Design in an email. “The work of any technologist, in my mind, should be to re-tool the means of innovation to meet the needs of individuals and communities who are in the unfortunate position of insisting that their right to life is real, and therefore urgent.”

Ultimately, Bail Bloc is a critique of tech’s relationship to criminal justice–but it has the potential to make a real impact. “The tech is beyond me, but the political statement that it makes is a really powerful one,” Ritchin says. “Here’s one more concrete way you can fight back.”


From FastCoDesign