The Blockchain Data Problem Might Be Bigger Than You Think

A straightforward data point – the total supply of bitcoin hit 17 million.

But as with most things in crypto, it wasn’t so simple.

Every 10 minutes or so, miners find a block of transactions and the network adds 12.5 new bitcoin to the total supply as a reward for the finders. And each reward has been logged on the blockchain since bitcoin launched in early 2009.

As such, it seemed like a number – a milestone – the industry could trust.

But as some celebrated once the mark was hit on bitcoin data provider Blockchain’s website, others took to Twitter to rain on their parade.

Jameson Lopp, Casa engineer and the creator of Satoshi.info, another public-facing bitcoin data site, tweeted:

“Today I’ve learned that a lot of data sources are incorrectly reporting the total bitcoin supply. We haven’t actually hit 17 million BTC yet.”

Lopp’s contention was that Blockchain.info, one of the most popular and highly-regarded sources for blockchain network data, among others, had not accounted for instances in which bitcoin miners, due to bugs and other causes, did not claim their full block reward.

Unfortunately, these discrepancies in the total bitcoin supply metric are not the exception, but part of a larger problem that stems from the “opaque” methodologies these blockchain data analysis providers use, according to Greg Cipolaro, the CEO of Digital Asset Research (DAR), a firm that provides blockchain analysis to clients.

As such, DAR went on a mission to figure out Blockchain’s methods for what it calls “one of the longest standing mysteries in the cryptocurrency community” – bitcoin’s estimated transaction value. In the company’s report on the subject, published recently, DAR said Blockchain over-estimated transaction values from October to February 2017 and has mostly underestimated them since then.

Executives from Blockchain were not available for interview before press time.

But it’s not only Blockchain. Cipolaro cited CoinMarketCap’s January removal (without warning) of South Korean exchange data from its price index. Since cryptocurrency prices on South Korean exchanges have tended to be higher, the eviction made it appear that the crypto markets were crashing.

Panic selling ensued, setting off what Cipolaro called “a mini-flash crash.”

In fairness, though, price indices always involve subjective decisions. That is true not only of cryptocurrencies but also the stock market. Yet without insight into how price and other metrics are arrived at, the cryptocurrency community could suffer. Accurate data is extremely important for investors, traders, users, developers, academics, journalists – basically everyone.

A multi-layer problem 

Still, many people who depend on public blockchain data don’t realize how flawed some of this data is.

Offering a grim outlook on the broad state of blockchain analysis today, Stefan Richter, a computer scientist who co-founded data provider BitcoinPrivacy, told CoinDesk:

“There are, of course, software bugs in probably every explorer around.”

And Cipolaro echoed that, saying, “This is not something you would notice unless you spent your days looking at it.”

Luckily, some industry enthusiasts have noticed.

Lopp, for one, is a cryptocurrency data hound. He pointed to bitcoin node count, a figure often cited as a measure of the network’s decentralization and health, as a particularly finicky metric.

“I often hear folks say that there are only 10,000 bitcoin nodes,” Lopp said. But the source of that figure, Bitnodes, “only counts reachable nodes that accept incoming connections.”

Addy Yeow, the creator of Bitnodes, confirmed that the site only counts “listening” nodes.

As such, the total number of nodes could be far higher, according to both Lopp. Indeed, one estimate puts listening and non-listening nodes at nearly 140,000…

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