Written By Hilton Collins for Government Technology News 09/27/2012 - On March 9, 2009, Stephen Watkins’ children never showed up to their school in Newmarket, Ontario. During a weekend court-ordered visit, his ex-wife Edyta Ustaszewski, the noncustodial mother of their sons Alexander and Christopher, took them and fled the country. She escaped to the U.S. before heading to Europe, sending authorities on her trail for more than two years.
But Watkins was proactive, using modern technology to bring international attention to tragedy. He created custom quick response (QR) codes, 2-D bar codes people can scan with smartphones once they’ve installed a free code reader app. The scan takes users to websites, videos or whatever content the code maker desires. In Canada, missing kids’ pictures are printed on bills and bank statements, but Watkins went further.
Many of Watkins’ codes took viewers to a mobile Web page loaded with information about the case. The page, which is still up today, has the boys’ photos, dates of birth and physical descriptions, as well as videos of news coverage about the investigation. Links abound on Watkins’ Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blog accounts with abduction details. There are also phone numbers to missing children’s hotlines and links to organizations’ websites where people provide data about the boys’ whereabouts.
Watkins put his codes on press releases, fliers, posters and websites.
“My objective was to try to give my sons a fighting chance to be found by littering the Internet world with as many links to their photos as possible,” he said.
Authorities found Alexander and Christopher in Poland in 2011. Watkins doesn’t know if QR codes led to the discovery, but he thinks they can make an impact elsewhere. He creates codes and campaigns for cases in other countries, hoping to capitalize on widely available technology. In America for example, 14 million people scanned QR codes in June 2011, according to a comScore report.
“QR codes are still probably the best way of getting people off the page and online to a direct site,” Watkins said.
Going Mobile and Global
Watkins helps organizations and families use QR codes to make missing person’s posters portable. People can write information on paper posters and memorize children’s faces, but it’s easier to share the information virally if they scan a code that puts the data in their phone.
He’s partnered with Child Quest International to help the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department find Sierra LaMar, a 15-year-old who disappeared in March 2012 on her way to a bus stop in Morgan Hill, Calif. They put QR codes on posters and fliers to take the search beyond county borders.
“If my flier’s just posted in San Jose, is it going to reach L.A.? With a QR code, it will,” said Anthony Gonzalez, Child Quest’s senior operations director. “It increases shareability, awareness and time-efficiency when reporting a sighting.”
In LaMar’s case, the code takes visitors to a mobile Web page similar to the one Watkins created for his sons, but with one crucial difference: Users can tweet the page or “like” it on Facebook, extending the search to social networks. The page also has LaMar’s physical description along with photos, videos and phone numbers.
Watkins used the uQR.me service to create the code and landing page for free. Users create an account to generate QR codes with adjustable appearances called vanity QR codes. People can change the color or embed photos if they don’t like the default black-and-white QR code.
Watkins embedded photos of LaMar and his sons on their QR codes to give the two campaigns a personal touch. He thought standard QR codes look too dehumanizing for missing children’s cases.
“They have a level of humanity in them because they actually have a picture of a missing individual,” Gonzalez said. “It means a lot to the searching families, but it also is very distinguishing between each one and the normal marketing QR code.”
uQR.me’s user interface allows the Web page owner to change site content without modifying the QR code itself. These are called dynamic QR codes because people can alter the connected media without having to discard the code, which is what’s required with static code. Many QR code generators create code permanently linked to content at the time of creation, so new code is needed if content changes. uQR.me is one of several generators with the dynamic option.
Is the Battle Uphill?
Watkins creates QR codes for cases for free and hopes to educate the world in the process. He sometimes encounters organizations that don’t know what those QR codes are, and there can be complications when they do.
Problems can arise even when law enforcement wants to use QR codes, Watkins said. “They’re not techies,” he said. “so we want to make it as simple as possible for them.”
The resources to deploy campaigns aren’t always there either. In California, for example, Gonzalez said budget constraints impede viability.