Archive for February, 2010
Ever since the third DC CrisisCamp a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the potential role that matrix codes can play in disaster response. A matrix code is kind of like a UPC symbol used when scanning items at a store, except that it’s shaped like a grid and can be used to contain all sorts of information. For example, it’s not unusual to see matrix codes on billboards in Japan, so when you take a picture of it with your cameraphone, it’ll direct you to a website related to the product on the billboard, or perhaps a coupon.
But what about using matrix codes in a disaster? For example, there’s already precedence for marking buildings with coded information: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
(Photo by cbank, licensed under Creative Commons)
Following Katrina, search and rescue teams went from house to house, looking for survivors and human remains. Using spray paint, they’d mark the front of the house with a matrix describing when it was searched and what was found. Meanwhile, after the Haiti earthquake, a satellite photo captured one building with an SOS message on the rooftop:
Apart from that powerful plea for help, though, there weren’t any other details about what help was needed.
Which leads me to the question: what about using matrix codes for keeping track of even more data? For example, groups like the Sahana Foundation are running databases that document the capacity at Haitian hospitals, like this Adventist Hospitalin Carrefour. What if hospitals put matrix codes on their outside walls so any aid worker with a cameraphone could aim their phone at it and immediately access all sorts of data about conditions at the hospital? In theory, you could even put matrix codes on your roof, though I’m not sure how large they’d have to be in order to be picked up by the highest resolution satellite imagery. (Does anyone know the answer to this?)
And matrix codes don’t have to be printed out on high-quality printers in order to work, as I discovered this afternoon. You may remember a couple of weeks ago I created an electronic version of this matrix code for that Adventist hospital, using a free matrix code generator called ScanLife. I decided to use ScanLife because it seemed like it was the easiest one to replicate by hand, as the blocks are in a simple 11×11 grid. (I might also try QR codes at some point, but they’re a lot more complex than ScanLife codes.) Today, I finally got around to taking that same matrix code and drawing it on a piece of .5″ graph paper, coloring in the relevant squares with a black Sharpie marker.
I purposefully didn’t do a pristine job; I scribbled in the squares, and the edges of each square are often pretty rough. To my amazement, though, the hand-drawn version of of the matrix code works like a charm. Using the free ScanLife app on my iPhone, I aimed the phone at the piece of paper, and it immediately brought me to the correct page on the Sahana website with details about the hospital. You can try it yourself: just search for ScanLife in the App Store (or the Android Market, for that matter), download it, then aim your phone’s camera at the matrix code.
To make it a bit more challenging, I took my DIY matrix code and taped it on my kitchen window:
As you can see, there’s a lot of potential noise in the background, including trees, falling snow, even a paper leaf my daughter made at school. Once again, the ScanLife app recognized the matrix code immediately and brought me to the hospital database page. I imagine these DIY matrix codes could be created in a variety of ways. I want to try doing it with little black squares with velcro on them, allowing you to reconfigure them easily. For that matter, you could get yourself a bunch of cheap black tiles and lay them out against a wall, or on a roof.
As cool as this is, is it actually useful? Set up wouldn’t be too difficult; aid workers or other volunteers could generate the matrix codes and then give instructions to hospitals or other facilities how to configure the grid. Even if the hospital didn’t have Internet access, you could pass along the info to them by giving them grid coordinates (1A, 3C, 4C, etc.) But what I’m not sure about is what practical application it would have on the ground. Would it be useful for aid workers to grab this data in real time? If so, how would you keep the details – numbers of beds available, morgue capacity, etc – up-to-date? You could probably come up with a variety of workarounds, getting volunteers somewhere to update the databases, but is this too complex to make it worthwhile, especially when the spray-painted method during Katrina worked fairly well? And would it be valuable to put these matrix codes on roofs, assuming satellite imagery could pick up the grid details?
It really boils down to one question: is this just a clever technology in search of a practical application, or could this somehow make a difference in disaster response? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Thanks to the good folks at iBiblio, I’ve switched my blog from Movable Type to Wordpress. My MT database had been having problems for many months, which is why I haven’t been posting very often. We’re still working out some of the kinks, but hopefully the blog will be stable fairly soon.
Ever since CrisisCamp this past weekend, I’ve been thinking about experimenting with ways that matrix codes like this one could be used to track important data in Haiti. Download the free ScanLife app for the iPhone and point the iphone at this particular code. It should pull up details from the Sahana database for a hospital in Haiti, including its current capacity and supply levels.
So my question: would putting matrix codes on the outside walls of important relief sites in Haiti – or on their roofs, given all the satellite imagery that’s taking place right now – serve a useful purpose? If you didn’t have a printer in the field, you could distribute large laminated sheets with subtle lines on it that would help you fill in the right blocks, either with black marker or with little black squares you’d fix onto it. Or you could print them out before going down to Haiti and distribute them in the field to hospitals, schools, tent cities, etc.
Must brainstorm this further. Stupid idea? Or could it actually be useful? Please let me know what you think.