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Modern postcodes

Ireland doesn’t have a postcode system — a state of affairs that causes endless problems with badly-designed web sites that expect them, as well as with courier deliveries. But of course in the internet age there’s no reason to wait for the State to act…

It always surprises people that Ireland doesn’t have post codes, when pretty much everywhere else does. Dublin has postal districts — I used to work in Dublin 4, which covers about 50 square kilometres and so doesn’t really function as an aid to delivery or navigation — but there’s nothing similar in the rest of the country. Add to this the fact that many country villages don’t have street names either, and you start to understand why getting a package delivered by a courier usually involves a phone call to talk them along the route.

In actual fact the problem is less severe than you might expect, because the postal system works rather well. This is because the postmen and women get very good at learning where each person lives by name, so a name, village and county will normally get through (outside a major town). The villages are small and people tend not to move too frequently, so human-based routing works well for frequent contacts. For couriers and infrequent service providers, though, it’s a different story. I usually have to take phone calls from the people who deliver heating oil, for example, because a twice-a-year delivery isn’t enough for them to remember where we live.

One might think that this situation would be easily remedied: choose a postcode system and implement it. But this leads to the next thing that people often find surprising: many people in the countryside, despite the obvious benefits in terms of convenience and efficiency, are implacably opposed to postcodes. The fear is that such a system would do away with the quaint townland names: each village will often have several smaller townlands surrounding it, that get mentioned in the postal addresses. These often have a lot of history attached to them, and in some parts of the country are written in Irish even when nothing else is. Every time the idea of national postcodes is raised in the national press a whole host of letters are published opposing it and predicting the death of the rural Irish lifestyle, and it seems that this has been enough to stymie the implementation of the system on a national basis. There are a disproportionate number of Irish parliamentary seats in rural areas, so political parties are loath to do anything that alienates the rural vote.

In past times, that would have been it: the State doesn’t act, end of story. But we’re now in the internet age, and one doesn’t have to wait for the State.

I just came across Loc8, a company that has established an all-Ireland post code system. They’ve devised a system of short codes that can be used to locate houses to within about 6m. So — to take an example directly from the web site — the Burlington Hotel in Dublin has Loc8 code NN5-39-YD7. The codes are structured according to the expected hierarchy of a zone, a locality and then a specific location, with the latter (as far as I can tell) being sparse and so not predictable from neighbouring codes: you can’t derive the code of one property by knowing one nearly. (I might be wrong about that, though.)

So far so good. If the service is useful, people will use it: and apparently they are. You can enter a Loc8 code into some GPS systems already, which is a major step forward. The courier companies — and even, apparently, the national postal service, An Post — will apparently take Loc8 codes too. There’s also a plug-in for Firefox that will lookup a Loc8 code from the context menu: try it on the code above. It’s a bit clunky — why does it need to pop-up a confirmation dialogue? — and integration with something like Hyperwords would make it even more useable, but it’s a start.

What I like about Loc8 is that it’s free and (fairly) open: you can look a code up on their web site and it’ll be displayed using Google Maps. The integration with commercial GPS systems is a great move: I don’t know if it’s integrated with the Google navigation on Android, but if it isn’t it’d be easy enough for LOC8 to do — or indeed for anyone else, and that’s the great bonus over (for example) the closed pay-world of UK postcode geolocation.

The real story here is that it’s possible to mash-up a national-scale system using extremely simple web tools, make it available over the web — and then, if there’s value enough, cut commercial deals with other providers to exploit the added value. That sort of national reach is a real novelty, and something we’re bound to see more of: I’d like something similar for phone numbers, skype names and the like, all mashed-up and intermixed.


6 Comments

  1. I am developer of Loc8 Codes. Proposals for a National Postcode seem to suggest that it will only identify the centre of 50 properties – urban or rural – however Loc8 Codes can identify every individual property and even a specific entrance to a property or farm or industrial site and even can be put in place for temporary locations at outdoor events etc – some radio items which explain all here: http://www.loc8code.com/news

    Regarding predicting adjacent Loc8 Codes – unlike other solutions Loc8 does indeed have an inherent “adjacency” capability. Taking the Burlington Example – NN5-39-YD7 all other properties within a 3.5km square zone will have the same Zone Identifier “NN5” (everyone in Dublin will have N as the first character) Futhermore adjacent properties will also have the same locality identifier “YD7” and finally adjacent properties will have a number higher or lower than the Loc8 identifier – in this case “39”. So an adjacent property would read NN5-43-YD7 – thereby making it very easy to understand that one is beside the other. The equivalent of the propery number in the Loc8 Code is the numbers (always numbers) in the middle – i.e. the target destination.

    A Loc8 is unique in that no matter how many new properties are built – the numbers in the middle will always be related but sequentially and geographically and the number of characters will always be the same – i.e. never more or never less – which makes it very useful for scanning and other electronic device recognition. Loc8 is a very structured and organised code for that reason.

    A UK postcode is normally 7 characters long (there is provision for 8 as the population grows) however to indentify a property in the UK you also need a property number to go with the postcode – so with a 2 character property number, the UK postcode in total can be 9+ characters. A Loc8 Code can identify any property in Ireland (even the 50% without numbers) with just the 8 characters. The 8 characters are in fact really 7 plus another to act as a checker character to identify normal errors in the rest (recommended for all similar computer used codes)

    The plugin for firefox you refer to is Micr8 (Download for free here: http://www.loc8code.com/products ) which also exists for IE and others and all the main office docs. Highlight a Loc8 Code in text on the web or in an email or a documnety and Right click and you can elect see it on a web map. Why the confirmation dialogue? Well a Loc8 Code must work intrinsically (all characters connected) so we check first if it is a genuine Loc8 Code and if not we save the time and effort opening a new window and then finding out it is not a Loc8 Code. I agree however that if it is genuine we can go straight to the new window and map – will take that onboard no problem.

    Another nice feature is that if a Loc8 Code is added to our URL eg. http://www.loc8code.com/NN5-39-YD7 and if you brwose to it, then the location will appear on a map staright away.

    Loc8 is now supported on all common Garmin SatNavs, iphone application on the way and other developers manufcaturers also have access.

    If any more questions – please feel free to contact me.

    Gary

    • Gary,

      Thanks for the detailed comments. I’m delighted to hear more about your system. The fact that you’re rolled it out so independently is a great achievement.

      I think there’s a small — well, very small — privacy issue about being able to predict one code from another. You can do that in the UK too, of course, but UK postcodes aren’t as fine-grained as Loc8 codes, so you’re not usually identifying a single property. I must admit I can’t think of a convincing way to exploit this, but it’s something to bear in mind when you have a system that’s powerful enough to identify single properties: that level of detail does make it important to convince yourself that you’re not opening-up any security holes that might be exploited.

      Thanks again,


      — Simon

  2. Gary, when you develop the app – don’t forget the Blackberry users, still a majority in the business community. When I travel I use the BB to help me navigate unfamiliar towns and cities.

    Great system by the way – I have started integrating it with our shipping dept.

    Dave

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