Some of you may wonder how any of this 2D barcode stuff is related to humanitarian aid. Well, the first time I saw QR Codes little alarms started going of in my head, much as they did when I first saw Google Earth all those years ago, and the little voice in the back of my head chimed in with, “Take it, adapt it, make it into something useful.” It is pretty much standard policy that when you are in the bush you use everything to your advantage. It actually becomes instinctual to see a thousand uses for each little item. For example, a doctor I know once told me a story about a mutual friend who used a Leatherman and a gauze bandage to bypass the throttle cable which had snapped as they were trying to navigate through the mountains of Bosnia one icy night in a VW squareback.
So what does that have to do with 2D barcodes? While 2D barcodes are primarily used for advertising purposes it is possible to adapt them for many other uses. I could embed a packing list in the code and then print the code on the outside of a box of relief supplies. A sheet of paper, and printer, some cellophane tape and I no longer have to fiddle with the packing list taped to the side. Now I can walk up, snap a pick, and I can pull up the embedded data. In my warehouse in Indonesia this would have come in very handy.
2D barcodes are primarily used on business cards in Japan (see pic below). What is the difference between a business card in Japan and a treatment card in a refugee camp? Not much. Of course, one needs to update data on the treatment (or feeding card for that matter) but one of the problems with those cards is that they can be swapped around and some folks can end up getting double rations. QR Codes could fairly easily be implemented in more stable situations, like clinics, where they could either be used to match a patient’s ID against a database or to provide the patient’s basic stats, up to a half page, which can be embedded in the actual code.
The major problem with names in these situations is that are inevitably misspelled, mangled, wrongly interpreted etc. When the patient recites his name who interprets it? Does the same person enter the name in a ledger or is passed on to the person sitting next to him? Is the same name then copied onto the ID card? Or, are we simply just matching numbers to photos? (I admit that I have been out of the field for a while, and that I am not up to date on all the preferred methodologies, but if you are please be sure to chime in at the end in the comments section!) Whatever the solution my guess is that there is always room for improvement. Enter VoiceQR.
Admittedly, it is a stretch and there certainly are going to be a lot of naysayers but bear with me while I lay this one out. If the ledger has been replaced by a database how much of a stretch is it to incorporate QR Codes into the ID process? For that matter, why not remove some of the weak links, bypass manually typing in a name or relying on matching a photo, and utilize a VoiceQR code. What is a VoiceQR? VoiceQR is a technology that allows sound to be embedded with in a standard (looking) QR Code. Right now the max duration is about two seconds but that might be just what is needed for someone to recite their name into a small microphone, either in a handset or attached to a laptop, and have it imprinted as a VoiceQR on their ID card. That card can then be presented the next time they visit the clinic, the code is scanned with a Nokia handset (for example) and the patient recites there name into the handset. If there is a match, then the person is cleared. If not, then we cross match against a photo, etc. I replaces the likelihood of human error with the possibility of machine error and utilizes technology that have the kids in Japan already have in their pocket.
Now, this is all very fantastical and fun to write about but what if there was an opportunity to improve a system using resources that are already readily available? At this point I can generate a code for just about everything I see and it only took me a couple hours of cruising the web to figure out how. There is also the big question of “Will it work?” I don’t know but my brother is a sound engineer in LA and you can bet that I am going to send him a link to this post and ask him to give me some feedback. If he comes back with a positive response I’ll be sure to post it. If not, at least it was fun to entertain the idea.