When I was a young French teacher, I used to put big signs on all the objects in our classroom (which was actually an old farmhouse) with their French names—la table, le cahier, la chaise, le mur, la peinture, le chat (the cat didn’t like it very much!). I was reminded of this practice when I stumbled upon a similar real-world tagging phenomenon that is cropping up in odd places around the world. It’s a form of mobile tagging, using Semapedia and QR Codes. Semapedia is a research site that lets people create two-dimensional bar codes for physical objects, paste a label with the code on the objects, and link those objects to a Wikipedia article. QR codes (which stands for Quick Response) are the specific 2D bar codes that people seem to have gravitated towards. A QR Code is a matrix code created by Japanese corporation Denso-Wave in 1994. While the patent is held by Denso-Wave, the company encourages broad usage. QR codes were originally used in Japan for tracking automobile parts. But they soon began to be used by advertisers who placed them on posters and products in order to provide a quick link to a specific promotion via customers’ mobile phones.
Now, all over the world, people are pasting labels with 2-dimensional bar codes on them onto buildings and objects of all kinds. The purpose of these tags is to provide a link to a relevant Wikipedia article. It’s a citizen-led, guerrilla approach to linking objects in the physical world to useful context and information in the virtual world.
These tags are turning up on stores, museums, paintings, ATM machines, bridges, street corners, parks, records, books, and other types of merchandise. (I found a tag on a carton of San Pelligrino bottled water and another tag on a shelf with Perrier.) If you have a mobile phone with the right software installed, you can point your phone’s camera at the bar code, and the code will be converted into a mobile-URL link to the Wikipedia article about that object. If you take a photograph of the object and upload it to Flickr and add your geographic coordinates, it will also appear on a map which is maintained at Semapedia.org.
What I love about this Semapedia grass roots movement is that it takes a technology that is being used to push ads and promotions out to consumers and turns it around so that consumers are selecting the things they care about to tag and creating the links as well as the Wikipedia articles to go with them. If you take a look at the tags that have been created, as well as the photos that have appeared on maps, you can see these flurries of customer activity in different countries as people discover Semapedia and begin to tag things they encounter. Some of the tags are created by traveling digirati and bloggers as they move around the world. Others seem to be created by locals.
How Can You Participate?
You can participate by creating and posting your own QR codes on items of interest in your neighborhood and ensuring that there’s a relevant and germane Wikipedia entry. Usually you start by finding a relevant Wikipedia article (and/or creating one), then you can enter that URL into this form and print it out on label paper (or regular paper and use tape to attach it). If you see a QR code and want to follow the link, you’ll need to download the appropriate QR Reader into your cell phone or PDA (which also needs a camera and an Internet browser). You can find the downloads for many mobile phones at the bottom of this same Web page.