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New York is taking a page out of the mobile gaming and check-in space playbook to solve some large public information access problems.

The city’s challenge is to close the information gap between the millions of citizens on the street and the thousands of construction projects that impact daily city life. Simple problem; not a simple solution.

Most QR code-based projects fall prey to the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Snapping a code is easy but the information received is still incomplete, usually being developed by the users themselves. But in New York, the pieces, at least in concept are lining up. Public information is there but buried in public records. A population on foot, carrying smartphones are demanding the info. The QR code with free reader apps is the theoretical missing link to tie the process together.

An interesting if geeky article, Use of Quick Response (QR) Codes on Permits, on Mayor Bloomberg’s website opened my eyes to this QR project.  It popped up in my Facebook feed the other day thanks to the inveterate NY watcher @jenxo.

Here’s the situation:

New Yorkers live in the world’s largest and most chaotic construction site. Everywhere something is being built, fixed, redone, or scaffolded. This is life since the first settlers landed on the island and started building and it continues daily. It’s noisy and messy and incessant and indecipherable.

The city needs to connect the people with the data on the fly. The numbers are large–179,00 construction permits and 33,00 after-hour variances (in 2010) for the 975,000 buildings in NYC. And millions of people on the streets and roads. Using smartphones with QR readers as the solution is a profound idea. A complex project that if it works well, breaks new ground in making real-time web apps with IR readers a solution for large scale urban information projects.

Once again, dense urban cities are the sandbox for new uses of social and mobile experiments with the web.

This is how it is designed to work:

Starting in 2013, every construction site in the city will have a QR code (like above) posted. Readable through a handful of fee apps available for smartphones, it ties into the database of construction permits for all activity in the city.

You want to know who owns the building, what is being done and the schedule for completion?

Snap the QR code.

Interested in the name, contact information, license details of the designer, architect and contractor?

Snap the QR code.

Want to know if the builder has a variance that allows horrible noisy scraping noises on Sunday morning?

Snap the QR code and find out.

Want to know why the building looks much larger than the one the community approved?

Snap the code and check out the variances.

This is a really quite cool design. This is not a new technology looking for a reason to be. This is a mobile app with a reader solving a large scale problem.

The idea is a derivation of what we all do with check-ins with FourSquare or playing mobile games. The city is adapting consumer entertainment design to democratize data access in this dense and complex urban area. The result, if it works, will be a great proof point for the humanizing capabilities of the web and technology as a tool to really better life.

Extending the paradigm if it works:

Once the infrastructure is in place, the endpoint QR codes can do almost anything. The article spoke of QR codes on public vehicles and garbage trucks linked to educational videos on YouTube rolling out now. There are endless dots of data and information to be connected in New York…and I bet most urban centers.

Logical extensions to the construction permit concept require few leaps of imagination. Restaurant and clubs applying for liquor licenses, comment sites for taxi cabs and health certificates for street vendors. New York is a complex place. Mobile technology just may be a panacea to make it a bit more understandable and arm the citizen on the street with information to be in control of their neighborhoods.

For me personally, taking great mobile apps like the MoMa iPhone app and adding a QR code is an obvious must-do for all museums and public buildings. I would love to be able to snap a code and get architectural and historical information on buildings and monuments throughout the boroughs.

QR code based solutions, I would love to see:

  • QR codes on every one of the 60,000 SKUs of wine sold in the city so I can remember what I drank and find info in the store while I’m shopping or sipping at a wine bar
  • QR codes on food labels and farmer market stands (especially those labeled as Organic) to search information in real time while buying groceries
  • QR codes on conference badges so I know who I am talking to without asking
  • QR codes on pet labels to identify owners and their vets so lost pets can be tracked to the owner or taken to a vet who knows them

Wrapping up:

There are numerous mobile apps that help us navigate our cities, be more productive and know when the next subway train is approaching.  Adding the QR code with direct access to public data puts the consumer in control. This was always the dream of the social web. With QR codes and no-cost scanners and smartphones, it’s starting to come together, at least in theory.

Certainly New York is not the only city which has latched onto the QR code as a possible answer for mobile public information access. The information gap is everywhere.

If you have examples of other QR based apps or plans, I’m interested. Please share in the comments.

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