Thursday, July 21, 2011

QR Codes? Crowdsourcing? City of Manor Texas Raises the Communications Bar


Just when many people are finally figuring out how to take back a Facebook friend request (FYI -"Cancel Friend Request" is in the bottom left corner of the person's profile) or whittle down diatribes to 140 characters for a tweet, more technology comes along and changes the game again.

The City of Manor, Texas is raising the communications bar.

As highlighted in a recent interview with Federal News Radio, the City of Manor is a great case study in crowdsourcing and the use of Quick Response (QR) bar codes. According to Wikipedia, crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing asks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a "crowd"), through an open call. In the case of Manor, they're literally soliciting and using their community's ideas.

By now, most of us are familiar with QR Codes, as they've become quite a useful tool for activities like shopping, but businesses and organizations are warming up to a variety of uses. Social Media Examiner did a pretty good "101" overview of QR Codes in February. In most cases, using QR codes is as simple as scanning them with your smart phone and seeing what pops up.

Manor, a small town on the eastern portion of the Austin metropolitan area, was the first government agency in the United States to deploy a QR Code program to disseminate information to residents and tourists. The idea came to them when they were looking at ways to improve their filing system, and an employee suggested that they use them as a means of branding the city. It worked. Since then, Manor has used QR codes and crowdsourcing as a means of increasing transparency and getting around a tight budget. What they've done is add QR codes around town, placing them on signs, vehicles and historical landmarks, in order to give the public quick access to more information. City Manager Phil Tate says that the start-up costs for the QR Codes were low, about $400, and almost all of that was the cost of the signage.

One of their more interesting examples: a water tank that was climbed by Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene in the film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," which also starred Johnny Depp. Scanning a QR code at this location brings up photos and info from the movie. A visitor can scan the QR code at City Hall and view pics of downtown Manor in the 1880's and other historical information. A QR code at a construction site gave updates on the cost, the company hired to do the work, and estimated time of completion.

"Overnight, it grew beyond anything we could have dreamed,"says Tate. "We had people coming from all over the world to look at these signs." More importantly, the program served as a model for other cities, like De Leon, Texas and Long Beach, Washington, to follow suit. The project also drew significant interest from the Smithsonian Institute, Illinois State University, Stanford University, and South by Southwest, all of which have implemented their own types of QR code systems.

Tate says that at its peak, there were about 450 QR scans a month.

In addition, Manor has created a unique crowdsourcing platform with Manor Labs, a platform designed to solicit ideas from the public and create conversation about improving the local government. With only 35 employees, getting citizens involved in, engaged with, and contributing to the city's efforts is a great way to fill voids created by staffing and budget issues.
To increase public awareness of these initiatives, the City of Manor employees created a series of newspaper articles and spoke at area community meetings.

Manor Labs allows citizens to submit ideas, and these ideas are voted on by other citizens. Once the number of votes and page views reaches a certain level, city officials review the idea and determine if more info is needed or if it can move closer to implementation. A really unique aspect of Manor Labs is that they've created a virtual currency that citizens can earn by submitting ideas, voting on them, and having the ideas implemented. The currency can be used to purchase by tangible donated products and virtual honors.

Tate points out a few implemented ideas that really stood out: an automatic debit system for paying utility bills, a streetlight reporting program, and adding the QR codes to uniforms and vehicles of city employees that includes additional info about various departments and services.

The City of Manor: Good Communications, Good Government.

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