The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'postcodes'
The British postcode system, one of the things which Britain arguably does better than anyone else, is 50 years old. The system divides the entire UK into alphanumeric postal districts organised in a hierarchy, with the first one or two letters denoting a postal area (typically a city or the environs of one, though London has several). Unlike systems elsewhere (such as the US, Australia, and most of Europe), it doesn't stop at the neighbourhood level, with each 5-to-7-character full postcode denoting a segment of a street. This makes it useful for applications other than addressing mail, such as navigation; as such, you can enter a postcode into Google Maps or a satellite navigation unit and be shown exactly where it refers to.
Unfortunately, though, the database of postcodes and their locations is another victim of the British institutional custom of copyrighting taxpayer-funded databases and licensing them only at great expense and under onerous terms (see also: the Ordnance Survey), effectively restricting them to moneyed corporations. However, there are several unofficial efforts to assemble this data from scratch and release it into the public domain.
One of the things that Britain does better than anyone else is postcodes; while most countries' postcodes give you an area the size of a suburb or town, the six or seven letters of a Royal Mail postcode give you a segment of a street, with enough information to find the place the code refers to. This allows sites like the Transport for London Journey Planner to tell you exactly how to get from one postcode to another.
There is a problem with this, though; the postcode data is not free, but is owned by Royal Mail, who monetise the hell out of it. If you wish to use the database for your own purposes, doing so will cost you a few thousand pounds a year. (The fact that your taxes may have paid for the system to be drawn up doesn't enter into the argument.)
Anyway, this has gotten up the nose of a number of open-geodata activists, who are doing something about it: they're collecting their own data mapping points to postcodes, and using this to draw up freely usable and distributable maps of postcode areas. Free The Postcode! is aiming to do this at a high level of accuracy, soliciting input from people with GPS receivers; meanwhile, New Popular Edition Maps is using a 1940s-vintage map of England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland may come later) to allow people to click on where their homes are and enter the postcodes. Since this is inherently less accurate (the map is of fairly low resolution, and the process depends on matching shapes of streets), they're only concerned with the prefixes at this stage. The data produced will be released into the public domain.
(via Boing Boing)
In light of Google Maps launching their Australasian coverage, I am of the opinion that one geographical innovation Australia could do with is street-level post codes.
If one thinks of postcodes as merely a bit of stuff you write on a letter to help the postman, it may not seem like such a big deal. Though once postcodes are seen in a broader context, as coordinates optimised for specifying how to get to a location, they really come into their own. A 4-digit Australian postcode gives a few square kilometers of urban area, or several times that in the outback. A 6-7 character British postcode, however, can home in on a street or a segment of a street, down to a few dozen houses. Type in a postcode like "NW6 7JR" into Google Maps and you'll get a map showing you where your destination is; enter it into something like the Transport for London Journey Planner, and it has enough information to determine an optimal route for getting to the location in question, getting you close enough to find your destination without any further help. Because the postcode is a code in a very specific format, there is no need for guesswork, address parsing, or the computer asking you to select which location you meant from a list of alternatives.
I modestly propose that Australia would benefit from street level postcodes. The increased efficiency in mail delivery would save the Post Office money, and the streamlining of computer-based navigation technologies would boost the increasingly high-tech, high-speed economy, not to mention provide a valuable public utility. One could possibly even make an environmental argument for finer-grained postcodes, that in optimising navigation, they would reduce the amount of fuel used and pollution emitted. The street-level information could be added on as a suffix to existing postcodes, much in the way ZIP+4 was added to US ZIP codes in 1983, and could consist of an alphanumeric suffix. For example, a segment of a street in Fitzroy could be designated by something that looks like 3065-AB3. (They could also be purely numeric, though alphanumeric suffixes would allow for more information in fewer characters, and keeping the total length to 7 characters or less (as per The Magical Number Seven +/- 2, this being the capacity of human immediate memory) Punch that into a website or mobile phone application and you can get detailed instructions on how to get to your desired location.
Of course, proposing such a scheme is one thing, and getting bureaucrats, politicians and various vested interests to run with it is another, so one probably shouldn't hold one's breath.
And if it never happens, we could always move to a purely latitude/longitude-based coding system like the Natural Area Coding System. The problem with that is that, being purely physical, it does not take into account local geographical features, such as whether two points are adjacent houses on a street or houses in two streets only reachable by a long detour.
A Canadian company has devised a universal postcode system. With this system, a 10-character code, of the form "W2B00 8P2H0" uniquely denotes an area measuring approximately one square metre anywhere on the earth's surface. The Natural Area Coding System itself is quite simple; each character is a base-30 digit, and the two groups of characters refer to longitude and latitude as fractions of 360 and 180 degrees respectively.
This all sounds like one of those brilliantly original ideas, like Esperanto or Metric Time, which, for all their ingenuity, come up face-first against the brick wall of pragmatism and inertia, people being creatures of habit and all; except for two things: firstly, in the age of GPS, Natural Area Coding System codes will be easier to determine than traditional post codes, as there will be no maps or databases to look up, and also no questions of changing boundaries (as happens from time to time, for example when resident groups or landlords lobby to redraw the boundaries so their properties aren't in Footscray or South-Central LA or somewhere similarly insalubrious). And secondly, Microsoft are backing the idea, and plan to integrate it with their MapPoint map service. (Perhaps they hope that they can use it to lock customers into depending on Microsoft technologies or something? I wonder if it's patented.)
NACS could eventually become a world-wide postcode, replacing legacy postcode systems devised in the pre-GPS era. It would probably happen with shipping/courier firms utilising the codes internally, and businesses which deal with them putting them on their details, and finally postal services phase out the pre-GPS system and adopt this. Of course, if someone detonates an EMP bomb in the high stratosphere and fries all the GPS satellites (or if the Americans stop being our friends), we're all fucked; but if all the satellites disappear, we'd have more important things to worry about.