Manor, Texas, isn't notable for much, except that it's where the famous movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape was filmed. But don't be fooled by pickup trucks and cow pastures. The city of 5,000 people is using a relatively new technology that lets anyone with a camera phone instantly access information about local points of interest.
"As far as I know, we are the first town in America to do this," said 22-year-old Dustin Haisler, the CIO of Manor.
Haisler, who also serves as city secretary and associate judge -- he takes defendants' pleas and issues judgments and warrants -- was referring to Quick Response (QR) codes, which are two-dimensional bar codes similar to what's found on a FedEx envelope. Manor placed them at various spots around town.
QR codes are an arrangement of squares, as opposed to the traditional lines used in supermarket bar codes. The squares encode information horizontally and vertically, making them able to store more information than traditional bar codes. Aided by downloadable, free software for mobile phones, users can snap a photo of a QR code, which then directs them to a Web site for more information.
Haisler, who is also a student at LeTourneau University, is the mind behind the introduction of QR codes and is part of Manor's larger effort to streamline its infrastructure on a shoestring budget by beta testing products and using open source software. "We use things that are open source, that are free and available that we can expand," he said. "When we beta test things, we can say, 'OK, here is what needs to be fixed for your end-user.'"
Haisler was looking for a way to streamline Manor's filing system when he discovered the technology. "We had done some stuff with bar codes, and we were trying to figure out a way to encode a lot of information in a very small amount of space, and something that was cheap," he said. Later at a meeting in City Manager Phil Tate's office, Haisler said he realized QR codes had "a lot of economic development potential."
While it may seem unusual for a city of Manor's size to embrace such forward-thinking technology, the investment's low price tag makes it a viable option for cities with smaller budgets. Manor is uniquely situated to embrace new technology because of its proximity to many of east Austin's high-profile technology companies, such as Applied Materials Inc. and Samsung Austin Semiconductor. Haisler and Tate said QR codes are one way to keep the city at the front edge of new technology and make it an appealing place to live, especially for residents working in Austin's tech industry.
Manor is also using QR codes to one-up Austin, which invested with a local company to provide a GPS-guided tour of the city that costs tourists $11.95 each. But for only $400, Manor installed bar codes in various locales to create a walking tour of the city that's available to anyone with a camera phone and the time to download the free software.
"We don't have a lot of money to develop technology infrastructure, so we try to innovate our own solutions," Haisler said. "We've had a council and city manager who have been very supportive of innovating solutions instead of financing them through bonds or a lease to purchase, which don't spur any creativity."
Manor first used the technology to help make the city's major park a "smart park." A large QR code was posted at the entrance to Jennie Lane Park; when scanned it directs mobile phones to a Web site that provides information about the park, such as who it's named
after and what wildlife can be spotted on the hiking trail. The park also includes a wireless network, and officials hope to eventually expand it into a citywide network.
In addition to the walking tour, the city uses the codes to label construction projects and city buildings and vehicles. The town's New Tech High School also has a code affixed to its door.
One of the technology's biggest advantages is that codes are reusable, Haisler said. And after the initial investment, the only cost to produce new QR codes is the paper and printer. There's also little cost for updating or changing the Web sites that are connected to the QR codes.
The codes can be posted anywhere, and their size doesn't matter. A four-foot-square code is painted on the side of Manor's Courthouse. The city also put them on T-shirts during the annual Chips Festival and even had the local supermarket transpose a photographic image of one onto a cake that residents successfully scanned with their phones. Haisler has a code on his business card, and the city puts them on the sides of its vehicles to increase the project's visibility.
A QR code was posted in front of the old water tower and a quick scan guides a mobile browser to a page that describes when What's Eating Gilbert Grape was filmed and it shows a photo of actor Leonardo DiCaprio climbing up the tower in the film.
Manor Chamber of Commerce President Danny Burnett, who is a development coordinator for a local realty company, is also incorporating the technology in new developments that his company is involved with. For example, as the company builds new parks and developments, QR codes are posted at trailheads to increase the technology's visibility and also heighten Manor's appeal as a cutting-edge city. The Chamber also encouraged the Manor Farmers Market to use the codes for advertising.
Japan-based Denso Wave Inc. invented QR codes in 1994. They were originally used to track car parts before Denso made the technology publicly available. Most Japanese mobile phones have QR reading software preinstalled, and most Japanese advertisements on the street and in print media incorporate QR codes in order to direct consumers to Web sites for more product information.
Many Americans don't know about the technology or how to download the software for their mobile phones. However, QR reader software is available for most mobile camera phones. I-nigma reader is downloadable for most Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Samsung cell phones. Google's Android operating system for mobile phones has an open source QR reader, and software is available for the iPhone. All the readers are free. Haisler said Nokia would begin selling its U.S. phones with QR readers preinstalled in 2009.
Manor received the "Most Innovative Use of Technology" award in Texas in 2008 from the Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute on IT policies and practices in state and local government.
"There are ways to do what you need to do to innovate solutions; we have all of the services and conveniences Austin does," Haisler said. "Most of our IT projects have been done for free. We beta test products, we innovate our own, and we use open source products. Along the way we hope to do something that other cities can benefit from."