Once thought of as tools for product advertising or historic tours, quick response (QR) codes are now making their way onto building permits.

On Thursday, Jan. 6, Catawba County, N.C., began using the bar-code technology to help contractors and government workers access information on buildings.

What may at first glance look like a random assortment of pixilated shapes, QR codes are square images that can be found at tour sites, on cereal boxes, even toothpaste packaging. An increasing number of cities and counties — notably Manor, Texas  — are using them to deliver government data and services, too.

 A free smartphone app can read and interpret the code, and pull up the associated URL so users can browse the website connected to that code, according to the Catawba County Technology Department.

With the new QR-coded building permits, two sets of information can be accessed on smartphones when contractors receive hard cards (a hard copy of the building permit) from the county’s building services permit center. One QR code on the permit generates a GIS map of the parcel that relates to the permit and the other QR code links the user to the permit detail report website, said Steve Lackey, systems analyst for Catawba County’s Technology Department.

“The main and important thing is [the QR codes] give a list of the inspections and what the statuses are,” Lackey said. “So a contractor could stand here on the side [of a building], cue up that code and see what the statuses following the inspections are — what has passed, what has failed and the reasons for the failed ones.”

By using a QR-code system, contractors and others using the coded permits will be able to reduce the number of trips to the permitting office since the permit information is now accessible in the field. Lackey said the use of laptops will be reduced as well since the QR codes can be accessed via smartphone.

“There’s a big cost savings in the time of having to track somebody down on the phone to get a piece of information, or to drive back to the office,” Lackey said. “Being that the information is more readily available and in hand, it just makes things more efficient and more cost effective.”

To prepare contractors for the switch, the county released a newsletter in January that included a rundown of QR-code technology. A questionnaire also was distributed to local contractors to assist with the transition of the new QR-code system.

“We put out a questionnaire to the contractors to find out what devices they have, and explained to them that we’re going this way, so that whatever they decide to purchase in the future — over the next six months or so — they can gear themselves toward this as well,” Lackey said.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.