Big Data

Why geocoding is better than street addresses, and will power future tech and services

Both What3Words and Google's open location codes identify locations more precisely and concisely than conventional addresses. Here's how.

Map showing location with both What3Words and Plus.codes coding
Image: Andy Wolber / TechRepublic, background: Google Maps

Easy ways to identify locations will become increasingly important. You want your drone to deliver items to your doorstep, not the shrubbery. When you request a car bot pickup, you want it to stop for you, not another person a little way down a crowded city street.

But, a street address prioritizes comprehension over precision. For example, 1911 Landings Dr, Mountain View, CA 94043, conveys the street address for the Visitor Center on the Google campus in 41 characters (including spaces and commas). You'd need room information to more accurately identify a particular place inside that building.

Latitude and longitude can describe a location with great accuracy, but are also difficult for people to remember. For example, while -37.419297,-122.087547 identifies a spot near the Visitor Center, to an accuracy of less than a meter—and with just 22 characters—most people won't memorize these numbers.

Fortunately, these aren't the only two ways of mapping the world. Since 2013, two alternative approaches to identifying locations—also known as geocoding—have emerged: What3Words.com and plus.codes. Both seek to map every location on Earth with codes that are more precise, comprehensive, memorable, and compact than either street addresses or latitude/longitude coordinates.

What3Words

The name describes the solution: What3Words identifies every location with three words. Each series of words describes a 3 meter by 3 meter square. For example, the three words shield.puddles.ledge describes one spot outside the Google Visitor Center, while an adjacent spot is olive.mixed.orchestra. The number of characters required to describe a specific location will vary with the length of the three words.

Compared to coordinates, three words are relatively easy to remember. For local delivery, What3Words works well, but it helps if you know what part of the world the address describes. A similar three-word phrase, shields.puddles.ledge—with an added "s" on shields—identifies a location in Andalusia. And, if you forget the "s" on puddles, you've now described a place in Quebec, shield.puddle.ledge. But, for most practical purposes, such as a delivery, you're unlikely to mistake one location for another.

What3Words has been added to travel map apps, incorporated into government maps, and accepted by some delivery and postal systems as an effective way to route items. You can look up locations with What3Words.com on the web, or in an Android or iOS app.

Screenshot of What3Words that shows location of shield.puddles.ledge

What3Words uses a sequence of three words to describe a location.

Open location codes

An open location code, also known as a plus code, uses a sequence of characters to identify the world with grid sections of roughly 2.6 meters by 2.8 meters. A + character is required after the eighth character. The system has been released as open source.

Plus codes may also be shortened, as long as you can also identify the area nearby. For example, the Google Visitor Center site's plus code is 849VCW96+PX6. You can use a shortened version and identify the area by name: CW96+PX6, Mountain View. Nearby locations are consistently coded, such as the adjacent location, 849VCW96+PX7. All full-length plus codes are just 12 characters long.

Google search supports plus codes. Enter a plus code—either the full-length code or a shortened version with a nearby location name—at www.google.com and you'll get a Google map of the location. Or, drop a pin on a location in Google Maps on Android or iOS, then tap the location details to see the plus code for a spot.

Screenshot showing plus.codes location 849VCW96+PX6

Open location codes identify a location with a series of numbers and characters, and may be shortened.

Add geocoding to your database?

Your current database likely supports just one of these mapping systems: Street addresses. If you only need to communicate with your customers by mail, that may be all you need. But, more precise location data in your system might be a benefit for deliveries, government services, utilities, recreation, emergency personnel, or large event venues.

An alternative geocoding system lets you identify a location where a street address isn't much help. So, if you want to talk a bit more about geocoding, look for me on Wednesday evenings in early 2017 at humid.bottomless.civic, or 42.962997, -85.885630, or 86JPX477+6P5. That's a spot on a campus, exactly the type of place where an alternative address makes sense.

Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter, if you've added an alternative geolocation coding system to your organization's database.

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About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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