Bill Maurer, dean of social science and anthropology professor, has received two grants totaling $856,055 to continue his research on the impact of new technologies on financial well-being and consumer protection.

With a $561,055 supplement to its initial investment of over $6.33 million, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) funds to continue to build its network of researchers in the developing world who are exploring the impact of new payment technologies on the world’s poor.

Founded by Maurer in 2008, IMTFI supports over 160 researchers in 41 different countries. Check out their new video to learn more about recent work.

The additional funds will allow Maurer and his colleagues to investigate topics including:
  • How women and girls around the world are using mobile money and digital payment.
  • Perceived need for digital financial services in comparison to competing interests like education and health.
  • Effect of electronic salary and grant disbursement on habits and customs around money.
  • Growing impact of smartphones.

IMTFI has been lauded by The Guardian as a top-10 source for information on financial inclusion. Its work has been featured in academic publications as well as venues ranging from The Economist to NPR.

In addition, the National Science Foundation’s Law and Social Science program has awarded Maurer $295,000 to support a three-year investigation into bitcoin and other similar online, cryptographic currency experiments. The author of one of the first academic publications on bitcoin and co-instructor of the first regular, full-credit university class on the topic (taught last summer with Informatics professor Don Patterson), Maurer will explore developments in the technology that are taking it into new services beyond money and payment, and inquire into the effects for social policy, regulation and consumer protection.

“Bitcoin permits transactions to take place without a central authority but instead a decentralized network of peers verifying and authorizing them,” Maurer explains. “Some start-ups and bitcoin proponents are using it like a payment infrastructure similar to the Visa network; others are exploring whether protocols like bitcoin present the opportunity to displace low-level legal services like escrow and title recording—moving out of the domain of money and into that of law.”

Maurer’s research will investigate how innovators and regulators are dealing with new uses of bitcoin-type systems in payment and in legal services.

“Bitcoin is interesting not because it’s everywhere—because it is certainly not—but because it’s opening up old questions we thought were settled at the end of the 19th century, questions about what money is, and how contracts work,” says Maurer.

In line with his work at IMTFI, Maurer will ask whether bitcoin-like systems create new social and economic exclusions. This project will support a graduate student researcher and involve interviews, participant observation and coding exercises with professionals in what many of them call the “wild west” of this emerging industry.

“The fact that people call it a wild west should give us pause,” says Maurer, “but also makes this a pretty exciting place to do research.”

Additional IMTFI funding began in October 2011 and will run through September 2016. Funding from NSF will begin in July and run through June 2018.

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