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Gradbase

Objective

Open-ended group project focused on using software engineering to solve a real-world problem.

Duration

3 months

Deliverable

Created online service that instantly verifies qualifications such as university degrees in order to prevent CV fraud among job applicants.

Role

The group consisted of 6 Computer Science students. I designed, coded and handled project management responsibilities.
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Problem

CV fraud is a serious problem in the UK, where as many as 1 in 3 CVs contain lies or exaggerations. Inflation of grades is very common and even inclusion of courses that were never finished.

In today's competitive job market there are up to 150 applicants for every graduate job. Many graduates do not have the required grades for these jobs, making it tempting to embellish the CV.
Scott Thompson, former CEO of Yahoo! in the United States, famously claimed to hold a degree in Accounting and Computer Science and left the company after being found out. A woman employed by the National Health Service in the UK was even jailed for 6 months in 2010 for lying about her qualifications.

Research

The service was developed as a group project at Imperial College London where our goal was to explore novel uses of the blockchain technology.

Blockchain is a technology which emerged in 2008 and enables decentralised storage and verification of data using cryptographic functions and distributed computing. The most well-known use case is in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
We began by brainstorming multiple potential uses cases where quick and reliable data verification is crucial. We considered areas such as car ownership and contracts, but academic qualification verification quickly emerged as the most interesting area for us. Thanks to the extensive academic experience of our supervisors, they were able to immediately validate the severity of the academic fraud problem.

Next, we conducted desk research about how the job is currrently done and learnt that most universities use outdated custom solutions resulting in a slow and expensive manual verification process. We also analysed what stakeholders a new degree verification service would involve, from both a user and partner point of view.

Stakeholders

Universities
Universities hold the qualification data and would therefore be a very important partner. We met with academic registrars at Imperial College London who validated our hypothesis that they would like to minimise manual work but also highlighted technical challenges and data protection legislation.

Employers
We interviewed recruiters from large employers such as Google, who confirmed that they had encountered CV fraud but that they outsource the job to specialised background checking agencies who have a turnaround time of 3-12 days. We also learnt that small companies who cannot afford to outsource it would like a faster and cheaper background checking process as they have limited resources.

Job applicants
We surveyed university students and found out that academic fraud is not something they worry usually about when looking for jobs. However, once educated on the issue, they expressed interest in being able to prove that their qualifications are legitimate so that fraudsters don't have an advantage.

Ideation and development

After conducting our initial research we worked in weekly product development sprints. Our supervisors served as advisors throughout this process and gave us immediate and honest feedback.

In addition to the technical backend innovation, we were interested in rethinking the user experience of verifying qualifications. Rather than entering data from a CV manually into a system, we wanted to offer a tangible way for verified CVs to stand out from the masses with a "digital stamp".
We started by creating quick mockups of the user journeys and sketches of user interface components with prototyping tools. This allowed us to iterate very quickly early and decide what was worth implementing.

Soon, we were working on a HTML/CSS prototype in parallel with the backend development.

Solution

Our solution is a platform which connects universities, students and employers. We automate the time-consuming administrative work currently taking place at university registrys and handle the sensitive data in a secure and encrypted form. Companies are able to instantly verify qualifications and job applicants can add credibility to their CV with our digital stamp.
Data management (University)
Universities are able to upload, edit, view and remove qualifications. The data can be entered either individually with a form (mainly for proof of concept and not viable on large scale) or by uploading a spreadsheet of data.
eStamp (Student)
The eStamp is a custom QR code which serves as a digital stamp on CVs. Due to the unattractive apperance of normal QR codes, we developed a custom code-generator that blends the dot matrix with a university logo.
Data verification (Employer)
Gradbase offers employers and background checking agencies multiple ways to verify data: By manually filling a form with the data supplied by an applicant, using the personal link or by scanning the QR code on the CV and even directly in LinkedIn using our extension for the Chrome web browser.

Results

This project was a very open-ended challenge but we were able to design and implement a useful solution on time while also exploring the blockchain technology.

Our department awarded us the Palantir Forward Group Project Prize for software engineering excellence applied to solve an important real-world problem. We also came in 2nd place in the Imperial Bitcoin Forum competition for innovative student projects.

In 2016, we raised venture capital funding and two team members turned the project into a startup which I help as an advisor.

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