Grammateia Kotsialou is an LSE Fellow who joined the Department of Mathematics in September 2020. She is part of the Operations Research Group within the Department, and has previously worked at King’s College London.
In this post, Bento Natura finds out about Grammateia’s current research and how she has found joining a new university in the midst of a pandemic.
Hi Grammateia. You were recently interviewed in Westminster by Members of Parliament and gave expert opinion on digital currencies. How was this experience?
It was an interesting experience for me. While I was at King’s College London, we had been working on one of the first academic projects in the UK considering blockchain technologies, called VOLT; it was about voting. The members of parliament were interested in finding out more about voting, cryptocurrencies and how to protect people while also allowing this technology to develop. This was three years ago and a very new area at that moment.
You are really in a position to share your research with the public. How did you end up there?
The thing I enjoy the most is that I am working on something in my research that has so much potential for impact.
At heart I am a mathematician, but I finished my PhD in a computer science department. Then my first post-doc was in a political economy department and it was around that time most of the knowledge exchange with the UK government started. Now I’m back in mathematics, in a university which specialises in social sciences. So, I am slowly finding my place. Indeed, it is usually difficult to present mathematical research to the public, so I feel lucky that I have these opportunities to do this.
Going back, my first degree is in mathematics and my Master’s in theoretical computer science where I focused on algorithms, complexity, and logic. That was all in Greece. Then I moved to UK in Liverpool for my PhD in economics and computation where I worked on the mathematical foundations of game theoretical network problems. After that, I found myself in this very interesting research project which led me to the parliament: I was a research associate at King’s College London where I focused on blockchain technology, mostly for voting applications. And now I am an LSE Fellow and so happy to be here to continue my research on blockchain technology but also on other voting mechanisms.
You have already drawn a clear picture on what your research is about and how you disseminate it to the public. Can you explain a bit more about the voting mechanism you work on?
One of my favourite topics that I started working in the last three years is a way of designing voting mechanisms that help citizens participate more in collective decision making, called liquid democracy. I found this concept very appealing as it seems to boost democratic processes. In particular, given some recent real-world events on various elections I became motivated to deeply explore this topic, worked more on liquid democracy and focused on the nice features it has from an algorithmic perspective. I am also interested to see how this could be possibly implemented, perhaps using blockchain technology.
Saying this, I have been also researching the economics of distributed ledger technology and how this could potentially be used for voting applications. One of the most interesting things about this technology is that it allows decentralisation of the voting process in elections. Voting is not a single process but includes multiple processes: the collection of eligible votes, counting and presentation of the final result. Distributed ledger technology can allow the decentralisation of these process. For example, there can be multiple authorities that can simultaneously supervise each one of these processes. In the end you achieve some type of agreement, a shared truth according to the protocol that is being used for the particular application.
With all this mistrust that currently exists in the world including lots of misinformation, alternative facts and fake news, this is a feature that should be continuously highlighted with this technology, which I believe is going to be more and more important in the future.
Another recent work I have is on the design of a marketplace for data using blockchain. We have designed a mechanism that allows producers to sell data to consumers, without relying on a third party in the middle. Transactions are saved in blocks and we are trying to see how we can reduce the transaction costs. When traffic is very high, the transaction costs could be very expensive, so we are figuring out how to minimise the number of transactions. One way to optimise this is by moving most of the interaction off-chain, which are transactions that happen outside the main blockchain and are not recorded there, and performing only the final agreement on-chain.
Is your research mainly practical – in the sense that your results are supposed to be implemented in practice, and so you consider all the constraints and limitations in these scenarios with partners in industry – or is it for purely theoretical interest?
It is a combination of practice and theory. I’m looking into mechanism design, which requires a lot of modelling and exploring of algorithmic aspects, which I enjoy. But then I also want to try to make it as close as possible to a practical application, considering constraints and limitations. My recent collaborators are from computer engineering departments. Other collaborators specialise in economics and political science, especially in my research on liquid democracy. So, it is a multi-disciplinary area, which it must be when it comes to voting.
You spoke about fake news and mistrust in governmental procedures. Of course, elections in the big western democracies are already secure and not fraudulent. But could blockchain make elections in general, not only even more secure, but also increase the average citizen’s trust in the process?
From the research that we did, covered in the forthcoming journal article ‘Voting over a distributed ledger: an interdisciplinary perspective’, I believe blockchain has very high potential to create a more trusting atmosphere for the public during elections. The main reason is, as mentioned, that you have multiple authorities that can supervise the processes. For example, you can have a node for each political party and these nodes have a conflict of interest. Together, they can count the votes and this leads to a more transparent process, and trust comes with transparency. Similarly, you can allow each citizen to enter the system as observers, to be able to see their own vote.
We see more and more application processes moving online. Voting is still not there, mainly due to trust issues, but this is something that we cannot force on society. I believe that in a few years, society itself is going to ask for it because almost everything is going to be online. And when the time comes, we need to be ready, we need to have the technology ready.
Thanks for talking to us today. You have joined our department during lockdown, in fact between two lockdowns. How is your experience so far, even without having had campus life?
Yes, it was an interesting period to start at a new university. I would say that the best thing that I found is that the people in the department are very friendly and supportive and that is important for me. I’m very pleased about that. It is a pity that we can meet online only, but that’s okay.