When one thinks of helping refugees, cryptocurrency is not the first thing that comes to mind.

But Ric Shreves, a senior technology advisor at Portland-based Mercy Corps, thinks it could be a key to the future of providing emergency aid in more than 40 countries where the global aid agency works. He will be keynoting at TechfestNW in April.

The roots of the idea stem from his 21 years in Asia, where Shreves was a tech journalist for Computerworld, Bangkok Post and South China Morning Post.

In 2012, Shreves was living in Indonesia, where the Indonesian Rupiah was volatile, and doing his banking in Singapore. "I was just getting murdered on wire transfer and currency conversion fees," he recalls.

Enter bitcoin.

"I would go to Singapore and I would buy bitcoin, and then I would hold that, and then when I was in Indonesia, and needed Rupiah, I would sell some bitcoin. Now I'm using kind of the same technique to help refugees as they flee their countries."

Sound far-fetched? If you were in Venezuela, it might not.

"Hyperinflation in Venezuela is running about a million percent right now," Shreves notes. "If you look at that kind of economic environment, bitcoin appears to be stable compared to the Venezuelan bolivar."

The idea of using digital currencies to help refugees is in its "very early days," Shreves says—though, "there have been trials, and the blockchain back end as a ledger for cash transfers is already being used."

The international aid and disaster relief game is changing, he says.

"That old aid distribution model, throwing sacks of flour off the back of the truck—that doesn't really happen much any more," Shreves explains. Aid agencies are moving away from giving people stuff. "If we give them cash, they've got dignity and they've got flexibility."

Of course, whether for aid workers or refugees, carrying around cash or valuables like gold or jewelry might not be the best idea in places subject to violent militias, political chaos or natural disasters. Shreves notes that smartphones are ever-more ubiquitous, and the use of blockchain technology, which is what allows cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to operate, can increase the transparency and audit-ability donors seek.

Shreves, who written multiple books on open-source technology and papers on blockchain technology, also consults, blogs, and is co-founder of Coin Academy, which offers online classes on cryptocurrency. He holds degrees in music and law but nowadays is an "evangelist for distributed architecture and digital currencies."

He landed in Portland three years ago, and at Mercy Corps, Shreves is also working on constructing a solar microgrid system in Gaza based on the Brooklyn Microgrid project and helping pioneer the use of virtual reality as therapy for Syrian youth refugees in Iraq. "There is a body of literature on using VR for PTSD treatment," Shreves notes. "But all of the studies deal with adults. … It's our hope we're breaking some new ground here." The project entails overcoming barriers like how to get VR rigs past Iraqi customs, or convert VR menus and content into Arabic (which is read from right to left) and Kurdish.

"I get to do some really interesting stuff," Shreves says. "It's a fact."

Hear about it when Shreves speaks at TechfestNW 2019.