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.

“They don’t have the personnel and time to put somebody in a position to do it, whereas nonprofits and secondary agencies can fill those gaps for them,” he said.

Additionally, people like Watkins and organizations like Child Quest International have more freedom to try unconventional strategies that government either doesn’t have time to experiment with or doesn’t see the value in.

Finding Fido

Dynamic QR codes also exist to help people find lost pets and luggage. People can create a free account at Dynotag.com and choose their tag type, then upload a photo, and either fill out a form describing their pet or luggage or leave a general text message. All information is stored in the cloud. Users press a button to create a QR code that they print on a sticker to attach to a bag or pet collar. If either is lost, someone scans the code with a phone to generate data to locate the owner. The free accounts offer 4 MB of storage per tag, and $4.99 accounts offer 50 MB. Stickers with codes also can be bought through retail outlets, which customers activate online.

Users edit the information stored in the tags online without needing to create a new tag. “We are giving, essentially, everybody a piece of cloud,” said CEO Murat Divringi. “They enter information and update it anytime. It’s under their control, and we wanted to make it easy to use, like postage.”

Online pet tracking with QR codes is relatively new, but there’s already competition. Pet Hub, which allows similar functionality, launched in fall 2011 around the same time as Dynotag. Divringi  expects QR code use to expand past typical corporate use.

“They are going to go from being a curiosity to being a utility item,” he said.

Despite such issues, however, police have used QR codes successfully. The Vancouver (British Columbia) Police Department printed them on crime alert posters in 2011 to spread information about murder suspects, and the Portsmouth, N.H., police used QR codes that year to link residents to information about police programs. Portsmouth Police Chief Lou Ferland told Seacoastonline.com that the codes’ possibilities were endless.

Watkins hopes working with high-profile cases will teach the world about QR codes’ benefits. “The more the media reports it, the more society will know what QR codes are,” he said, adding that years ago, he decided to use the technology when he saw people pass missing persons posters in Walmart without paying much attention.

QR codes, he said, seemed like a good way to enhance traditional methods in the search for his sons. His professional background in corporate advertising helped him understand the technology’s usefulness in outreach.

Watkins says he’s the first person to use QR codes this way, and wants the trend to pick up. According to Gonzalez, the movement hasn’t spread far beyond a few jurisdictions and organizations like the Laura Recovery Center’s campaigns in Texas.

Conflicting data on QR code adoption and awareness paints a murky picture of how much work Watkins and his allies must do to promote the technology’s application in abduction cases.

These studies provide insight on QR codes’ popularity in North America:

In May 2011, a Mobio report said QR code scanning increased by 4,549 percent in the year’s first quarter on a year-over-year basis; yet

A 2011 study of 500 students from 24 U.S. universities found that nearly eight in 10 didn’t even know what to do with a QR code, and 75 percent said they were unlikely to scan one in the future; and

In March 2012, Forbes downplayed the importance of the 14 million Americans in the comScore report who scanned QR codes in June 2011, claiming they represented a mere 17 percent of the 82.2 million Americans who had smartphones in July 2012.

The story differs elsewhere. In Japan, for instance, 76 percent of those surveyed in 2009 said they knew what QR codes were and could scan them.

Despite the conflicting data, Watkins isn’t slowing down. He wants to create software that automatically generates QR codes and campaigns for North American groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in a centralized fashion, though he’s a long way from getting there.

“I’m prepared to build the software program,” he said. “I can’t fundraise and get in all that stuff until we get more of the media and society to know what QR codes are.”

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.