Southwest Virginia County Puts Land Records on Blockchain

A southwest Virginia county with about 40,000 residents situated near the Kentucky border is using blockchain for managing land records.

Jack Kennedy, clerk of the Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court is behind the effort to create, store and access smart land records through a solution from Bloqable, the company developing the software.

Historically, land records have been managed with paper indices, but “we have modernized over the past quarter of a century to evolve to remote access to land records, electronic filing of land records,” Kennedy said. “This is just a continuation of the evolution, using more modern technology (e.g., blockchain) to create secure title opinions that can be ultimately utilized by local constituents, the banking industry, realtors and others to rapidly certify ownership of real property,” he said.

Previously, it would sometimes take all day and trips to the courthouse to prepare an abstract of title, which is a report that summarizes a property’s history, including past owners, money owed on it and liens.

Ultimately, the system, built on Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Amazon Quantum Ledge Database (QLDB), will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to enable automatic generation of title abstractions, providing “the opportunity to push a button to get a 40-year title opinion, as opposed to hiring people to verify it,” Kennedy said. “Even if it is required to be verified by a human, it can be done much more rapidly,” he added.

The project has three parts. The first, which Bloqable delivered in June 2021, is a database of smart land records for Wise County and the city of Norton that make 40 years’ worth of data available in seconds. To date, more than 500 validated smart land records sit on the blockchain, according to David FitzGerald, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.

To create the records, which is the second part of the effort, the county is working land records employees and cohorts of about six interns at a time from local Southwest Virginia colleges who have been trained in abstracting with help from an e-learning curriculum developed at Old Dominion University. They open a browser interface and log into the cloud-hosted system. A wizard prompts them on the steps they need to take.

The first is to research the property identification numbers that are tied to every property and provided by Wise County and Norton through mxCourt, a platform Kennedy’s team helped build that allows court offices and users to collaborate, create, share, finalize, record, manage and search records, including land records. Interns collect information about the most recent deed, the address and a brief history of the property.

When the draft record is finished, it goes to April Huff, the county’s master deputy clerk of court, and her staff for validation, and then the approved record resides on QLDB. “Because it’s a block record on that chain, can never be changed, it can never be hacked, and when you have to modify information related to that property, it just goes on a new record on top of that historical record,” FitzGerald said. “It is judged by Wise County and Norton [land records] offices to be the truest understanding of that property that there is.”

The third aspect of the project is leveraging AI and ML. Bloqable and the county are in negotiations with Louisiana Tech University to provide supported ML, meaning support from the land records staff. They hope to roll this out this year and next, FitzGerald said.

Several grants totaling about $235,000 are supporting the blockchain project, including $85,000 from the Virginia Compensation Board’s Technology Trust Fund and $50,000 from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, in addition to contributions from the NASA Space Grant Consortium.

The biggest benefit of all is building a more engaged and educated workforce, Kennedy said, noting that the University of Virginia’s College at Wise has a software engineering school that he’d like to tap for additional interns. “Blockchain is going to be used in so many different aspects of life going forward,” he said. “We’re going to see more use of nonfungible tokens in the future to secure records, and I think it’s just an ongoing evolution as the next generation of technology goes forward.”