Colby Farmer, Blockchain Lead & freshman at Mountain Empire Community College, Ally Connell, Deputy Clerk, Photo courtesy of Wise County.

If you’ve ever bought a house, you’ve probably paid someone to help you do a title search. That typically requires sifting decades of title transfers, liens and other court records about the property—something that can take hours, even for a trained expert. What if it only took a few minutes, though, and you could pull up all of that information with a single click? 

That’s the goal of a Southwest Virginia project that’s using blockchain technology to enable “faster, better, cheaper access” to its land records, according to the clerk spearheading the project.

The goal, said Wise County Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy, is trifold: a database of “smart land records” in Wise and the City of Norton that can pull up 40 years’ worth of transaction history in seconds; roughly 20 paid internships that train Southwest Virginia college students to use blockchain software and title abstracts; and finally, software that harnesses machine learning and artificial intelligence to auto-generate property abstracts.

“We think we’re going to be the first in the nation to do it,” David FitzGerald, the founder and CEO of Bloqable, LLC, the company developing the project’s software, said of the latter objective.

Here’s a guide to the project’s origins, progress and potential impacts. 

But first: blockchain 101.

Blockchain, the technology behind digital currencies such as Bitcoin, is a data system that distributes and verifies its information across multiple servers. As the name suggests, it bundles data into encrypted blocks, locking each new block to the last, like boxcars. Once added, the information is time-stamped and extremely difficult to change. 

The result is a decentralized record system so bulletproof, its contents and transactions don’t require third-party verification.

“It really works well when you have two people who don’t really have any reason to trust each other but you need trust—a bridge between those two actors,” said James Harder, head of the Blockchain Initiative in Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science.

Harder said that many people used to confuse blockchain with the cryptocurrency it enables, but most industry leaders now understand that blockchain is simply an operating system with all sorts of other potential uses.

Norwegian salmon fisheries have begun using it to verify their products’ origins, for example. Walmart uses blockchain to track leafy greens for food safety. The technology is also the foundation for NFTs, the digital tokens that have made a loud, controversial splash in the art world.

Why put land records on a blockchain?

FitzGerald, who is based in Arlington, said the Wise County project originated a few years ago, when he began thinking about blockchain’s potential for land records. 

That might sound a lot less flashy than crypto or digital art, but FitzGerald said that land is the “most valuable property” most people own and proper documentation is an important piece of it.  

If you’re interested in buying property, for example, you’ll want a title abstract: a report summarizing the property’s past owners, plus any money owed on it or legal judgments about it. It helps you—and any bank you might ask for a loan—know what you’ll be getting into if you take over the property.

“Banks require that just to make sure you have a good title, [so] that they can take your property as collateral in case you default on your payments and they can foreclose without anything being out there that’s unexpected,” said April Huff, Wise County Circuit Court’s master deputy clerk, who has been supervising the training of the program’s interns.

That’s a big reason the FBI investigates people who manipulate or fabricate property records.

“If you’re able to convince a bank that you own property that you don’t and you can get a loan from that based on [fraudulent] documents, you know, those are tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars,” FitzGerald said.

He said that a blockchain network’s security features would make it much harder to lie about the history of a piece of property. 

It could also speed up the land records search process for property buyers and the bankers, realtors and other professionals who regularly use those records. Most title abstracts include at least 40 years’ worth of transactions, liens and other key property information. FitzGerald estimated that on average, it takes a title abstractor about three hours to compile that history. 

The blockchain-based records he envisioned could pull that information up in a few seconds.

Why Wise County?

When FitzGerald began looking for court clerks interested in putting their land records on a blockchain, he couldn’t find any takers in Northern Virginia. But in late 2019, someone pointed him to Kennedy.

Jack Kennedy

Elected clerk of Wise County’s Circuit Court in 1995, Kennedy became the first clerk in Virginia to put land records online. He’s since championed a string of other cutting-edge tech projects in Wise: hosting the country’s first FAA-approved drone delivery, collaborating with NASA on remote sensing programs and beta testing Starlink, the new satellite-based broadband from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to Wise County residents.

Within a few minutes of talking to FitzGerald, Kennedy said, he invited the software developer to Wise to talk further. He said he was drawn to the possibility of speeding up land records searches, as well as the chance to train young people in both blockchain and title abstracting.

Title abstracting “is a dying art,” Kennedy said. “It is a niche practice among attorneys and as a result of that, the general practitioner is not training the staff as much to do real estate title abstraction. We’re trying to reawaken that workforce development.” 

Kennedy said the project has secured about $235,000 so far, including about $85,000 from the state Compensation Board’s Technology Trust Fund and a $50,000 grant from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. The Virginia Space Grant Consortium, a technology education-focused organization based at Old Dominion University, has also contributed funds for some of the paid internships for local college students.

“What they’re doing in Wise County with these smart land records fits beautifully with [VSGC’s focus on] cybersecurity and teaching students about cybersecurity, building their knowledge and workforce skills in that area,” VSGC Director Mary Sandy said. “These were really good opportunities for students and we were very pleased to be able to help support them.” 

What’s happened so far? 

FitzGerald said that phase one of the project was simply developing the blockchain software for smart land records. That’s done. Phase two, which started in summer 2021 and is ongoing, involves training four rounds of paid interns from local colleges how to create and verify title abstracts, then add them to the new blockchain.

Ally Connell had only recently graduated from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and joined Kennedy’s office when he asked if she’d help Huff—who used to work as a title abstractor—train the interns. All of it was new to Connell. She said it took a month or two just to learn title abstracting before she was ready for blockchain. 

Connell, a deputy clerk who now manages land records for the office, said she hadn’t realized how intriguing it could be to take a piece of property and rewind it through 40 years of ownership.

“It’s almost like going back and doing an investigation,” she said. “It’s just interesting to see how property was passed from one person to the other.”

Connell said she, Huff and FitzGerald trained five or six interns in summer 2021 and five or six more during the fall semester. They’ll oversee two more groups this spring and summer.

Harder, the Virginia Tech Blockchain Initiative head, said the blockchain skills those interns are developing can only help their careers, regardless of whether they stay in land records or switch fields.

“I think it’s fascinating that a rurally based area is starting to really think on the cutting edge of how they develop a workforce that’s technologically savvy,” he said.

What’s next?

Kennedy said that the 500 or so smart records already on the blockchain are easy and quick for users to search. (He hasn’t said when they’ll go public yet.) But he said that manually creating, verifying and adding those records to the new system has been a slow process, and there are thousands more records to go.

Hence the project’s third leg: using advanced computing tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and optical character recognition to develop an automated process for creating property titles. All humans would need to do in that iteration is double-check the computer’s work—a development the project’s leaders said could reduce the amount of time and money it takes to create title abstracts.

“When you buy a house today, it’s a 45-day process, right?” FitzGerald said. “I could see a future where in five to 10 years, we buy houses with our smartphones, we sign them with our biological data, we have all the forms ready for all the governmental and banking parts of it, and it takes about a day or two. That’s going to be an interesting change of reality, which I think benefits everybody.” 

That work hasn’t begun yet, but Kennedy said that he and FitzGerald are discussing it with Louisiana Tech University, which they want to collaborate with for it. The clerk said he’s pushing for the automation phase to be finished by the time his term ends in late 2023. 

Kennedy said his ultimate hope is that Wise County becomes the first of many counties across the state and country to adopt these blockchain-based smart records. 

“Innovation can come from the places that you least expect it,” he said. “And that’s why I’m proud to do this in Wise County. People don’t expect this type of technology to be given birth [to] in the central Appalachian Mountains. And yet it is.”

Sarah Wade is an award-winning freelance reporter and writer based in Bristol, a city straddling Northeast...