A Small Texas Town Gets Smart with Phones

The Project: Deploy quick response (QR) codes to the town of Manor, Texas (population 5,800), beginning with public records and expanding to historical sites, municipal buildings and police vehicles. QR codes are a type of bar code that can be read by an application available for download to most camera-equipped cell phones. Users scan the code, launching a webpage where they can learn more about the tagged item.

To read more on this topic, see: Scan Your Way to the Next Party: University Tests Mobile 2D Barcode System and City of Manor Smart Tour.

The Business Case: When Dustin Haisler was appointed Manor's first CIO two years ago, he created a list of modernization projects. First: Deploy a server. Second: Organize more than 500 boxes of data that included municipal court judgements, police and utility records and building permits. To search for specific documents, town employees relied on handwritten labels on the outside of each box that listed its contents. The process was time consuming and disorganized--especially painstaking during audit season, Haisler says.

Haisler's annual IT budget of less than $100,000 required him to get creative. He began by researching inexpensive document management solutions and discovered how QR codes were being used in Europe, China and Australia. There, applications to read the codes come standard on mobile phones. And the best part, Haisler learned, was that QR codes are nearly free. The only costs come from printing them on cardboard or stickers. "I realized that QR codes could not only be used in filing but, more importantly, in economic development," he says.

First Steps: Some mobile vendors provide QR-code generators for free online: Haisler chose Touchatag from Alcatel-Lucent. Haisler tagged about a quarter of the boxes (they later implemented a document management solution), then installed a code reader on staff members' phones. The reader he chose (from I-Nigma) was simple to use, making training quick and easy, he says. Haisler then extended the QR code project to 24 areas around town, including a newly erected water tower, historical sites and police cars, so visitors to Manor or curious residents could learn more about the town.

Each code links to a website containing more information, such as how much money the water tower cost to construct and how many gallons it holds. By sticking QR codes on police cars, Haisler says that eventually he hopes to offer residents real-time information. If someone sees a police car parked somewhere, they could scan the code and learn why the officer is there. "We're working on that to add a level of transparency to the government," Haisler says.

What to Watch Out For: Educating users is essential. For the public deployment, Haisler set up a spot in town with free wireless Internet access where city staff could install the reader app on residents' phones and teach them how to use it. He also had tips and codes printed in the local newspaper so residents could experiment. Monitoring usage statistics such as how many people have scanned the codes and which devices they used is important for understanding how the technology is catching on. With the codes he placed in the newspaper, Haisler was able to track how many were being scanned, thus gauging the success of his education strategy.

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This story, "A Small Texas Town Gets Smart with Phones" was originally published by CIO.

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