Unintended Benefits

qrcodeWe’ve probably all heard about the “law of unintended consequences.”  An action is taken, and unplanned-for results spring up in it’s wake.  Sadly, given the nature of the term, we often assume that these unplanned-for results are inherently negative.  Hence the “consequences” moniker.  I want to share, however, a recent experience Central has had with an unplanned-for result from an action we took.  An experience which might help us to see that, perhaps more often than we think, an unplanned-for result can be a cause for celebration.

The Story

Ever since I met Antoine Wright, founder of Mobile Ministry Magazine, at BibleTech in 2009 I’ve been fascinated by the potential of QR Codes.  Right away I saw how these codes could be used to hurdle the platform gap that exists when exchanging information between smart phones.  Back in the world of PDA’s information exchange was typically done via IR transmission.  It was slow, and frequently awkward, but it worked.  Then Bluetooth came out and people thought that IR was going to be immediately replaced.  With bluetooth, you no longer had to stand in awkward positions to match up IR ports, and the speed was much faster.  The downside, however, was the way Bluetooth was integrated into PDA systems – you needed to be a major geek to make it work.  Bluetooth transmission was frustrating.

When the iPhone came out the Bluetooth stack was extremely limited, and there was no IR on the device anywhere – so people tried to come up with solutions that would allow us to pass information between devices.  Innovative concepts like “Bump” solved the problem, but only when there was an active network connection and only if both parties had iPhones.  This was unacceptable.

Then someone came up with an idea.  They realized that every smartphone has a camera, which just about anyone in the “Developed World” already knows how to operate.  The camera, combined with the processing power of a smart phone, was combined with a technology that Toyota had developed in the 1990’s – the QR Code.

These 2 dimensional bar codes are perfectly designed to contain short notes, web-links, and even vcard data.   Using this technology, any bit of information on a smart phone can be turned into a code that can be optically scanned by any smartphone which has a reader installed on it (there’s a lot of free ones out there).  Suddenly, we’re back in the world of being able to transmit data regardless of the device we’re using – as a speed which makes previous transfer techniques look agonizingly slow.  Snap a picture, and before can think the code is converted to text and laid out for human consumption.  Most readers will even allow you to re-display the code to pass the information to others.  The technique is, by all measures, a glorious hack.

When I first saw these codes in action, I’d found the answer to a puzzle that had been vexing me for many years – the dreaded “dead tree” method of data transmission.  That is, “printed handouts.”  While I have nothing against “dead tree format” for books (give me a hardback any day of the week), I can’t stand it for information that needs to be randomly accessed or is temporary by nature (such as an event schedule).  In these settings, DTDT (Dead Tree Data Transmission) frustrates me greatly.  I’d much rather make materials available via digital format, and allow people to access them with their mobile devices – until I saw a QR Code in action, however, I couldn’t figure out how to get from point “a” to point “b.”  The QR Code was the path.

So, as the number of smart phones at Central began to grow, we decided to take the leap and make our bulletin available in digital format, accessible via QR Code.  We tried several different methods, but eventually settled on simply publishing our worship order and announcements on the Church web-site.  When people scan the code, they are taken to a mobile version of our site, and to the published bulletin, natively formatted for their screen.  My intent was to be able to slowly reduce the number of printed bulletins over time, saving time and money, and reducing waste.  So far, it’s worked out fairly well.

Unintended Benefit

Several weeks after we implemented our QR Code experiment Central Baptist had a new couple come for a visit.  I saw them entering the building one day, and helped direct them to our Sunday School Auditorium.  Accompanying them was a seeing-eye dog, because both people in the couple are severely visually impaired.  As my son also has a significant visual impairment, I’m rather sensitive to the needs of folks who share some his struggles (in this case, the struggles are much worse than his own).  After inquiring as to our guest’s level of sightedness, I asked the couple if there was anything I could do to make the worship more accessible.  The answer I got blew me away.

No, thanks. You guys have a great web-site and we found your bulletin on-line so we know what’s going on.

Now, I had literally activated a new web-site layout the very week this couple visited Central, so the fact that it was obviously accessible sent me in near-earth orbit.  At the same time, however, I was blown away.  I had put the Bulletin on-line in order to allow the data to be transmitted optically – and here that decision make our worship accessible for brothers and sisters in Christ who cannot see. How’s that for an unintended benefit?