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Could QR Codes Help Solve Social Injustice?

QR codes have been around for a while, but haven’t found their killer application.  An unlikely group of activists are getting excited about a new use for them.

You can’t turn on the news without seeing protesters marching to raise awareness of social issues.  But there’s one thing they all have in common, regardless of the subject of their protests:  they are carrying signs–some handmade, others professionally produced, with a message meant to influence change. 

Surprisingly, some of those signs now include a QR code. SMARTSIGNS is an initiative launched by Sustainable Partners, Inc. (SPI). It gives protesters a simple way to mobilize their communities and makes it easy for any onlooker to write to their local government representatives. If you use your smartphone to scan the QR code on a sign, it enables you quickly and easily to send a templated pre-written email advocating a position to the appropriate local legislators.

The QR codes can appear on signs, business cards, or be added to flyers. Currently, the signs are localized for six states, including California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New York.  Depending on the cause, if you are in New York, your emails might go to either members of the New York City Council or New York State Senate. 

As of mid-June, SMARTSIGNS had generated over 100,000 emails to politicians and policymakers.  The signs and QR codes can be downloaded from the SPI site and are free to use and print yourself, or you can donate $10 and SPI will print 1 sign or 250 business cards for an upcoming protest. 

“I started with the idea and $50,” says Emily Kate, SPI’s Director of Special Projects. “I ordered a few signs for a friend and had them printed at their local Staples to take to a protest.  When others heard about it, but couldn’t march due to COVID-19 concerns, I created a Venmo account for people to fund the creation of signs that would be distributed to protesters.”

While SMARTSIGNS has simplified the ability to generate a massive number of emails, do such standardized templated messages actually influence legislators?  To find out, I sent emails to more than 80 legislators who are included on SPI’s distribution lists for the New York area.  To my surprise, nearly every email received an automated response stating that all emails would be read, but that due to the volume they all might not be responded to. 

“Constituents and even people outside my district have much more direct communication in a way that wasn’t possible beforehand,” New York State Senator Michael Gianaris told me in an interview, after I emailed his office. The Queens-based Democrat serves as Deputy Majority Leader of the State Senate.  “The facility of email campaigns has increased the volume tremendously that we deal with. But a good representative’s office, like every business these days, is more and more data driven.  We chart out how many contacts we’ve have on an issue, from whom, which part of the district, and we analyze the numbers.” But he conceded that other communications may influence him even more: “A personalized message carries a lot more weight than a mass email, where someone just clicks a button and may not even know the details of what they were sending.”

Adam Met, founder and executive director of Sustainable Partners, says that they encourage everyone to add a personal note, but know not everyone will take the time to do so. Met is a multi-faceted activist who aside from his work with SPI is a founding member of the multi-platinum-selling rock band AJR, and is also pursuing a PhD in International Human Rights Law and Sustainable Development.

“SPI’s mission is to strengthen the connection between education and activism.” Met told me. “SmartSigns highlights how we can combine innovative technologies, media, and academic research to help reduce inequalities. It gives activists clear, concrete, and effective ways to contribute.”

Adam Met, the “A” in AJR, a multi-platinum selling band, will speak about SPI and his work advocating for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals at Techonomy Virtual: Reset + Restore on Thursday July 16th.

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