Monday, November 03, 2014

Google's New Open Location Codes

Geocoding can be very difficult. Postal addresses work well in many countries but can be very inconsistent in lots of other countries. It is also believed that over half the human population on the planet don't actually have a postal address.

Luckily we can use latitude and longitude to accurately identify any location on a map. However a latitude and a longitude are hard to remember. To overcome this problem a number of other location coding systems have been invented to identify locations with more easily remembered identifiable codes.

One of the best location codes has been devised by What3Words. The What3Words location coding system divides the world into 57 trillion 3 x 3 meter squares. Each of those squares can be uniquely identified with just three words. If you know the correct three words you can instantly find any location in the world.

One of the biggest assets of What3Three is the use of just three easily remembered common words to represent each 3x3 meter square on the planet. Imagine, for example, that you wish to meet your friends at a specific spot in the park. It could be a location that doesn't have an exact address, such as beneath a particular tree. With What3Words you just need to tell your friends to meet you at 'grow longer bottle' and they can easily find the exact spot using the What3Words desktop, Android or iOS app.

Google has now also released its own Open Location Code. The new Open Location Code uses a sequence of characters to identify locations around the world. The first four characters in an Open Location Code describe a one degree latitude by one degree longitude area, aligned on degrees.

To get a code for a smaller area characters are added to the code. Adding two further characters to the code, reduces the area to 1/20th of a degree by 1/20th of a degree within the previous area. And so on - each pair of characters reduces the area to 1/400th of the previous area.

Currently Google Maps doesn't support Open Location Codes. However, because Open Location Code is supported by Google this new system could be worrying for other location coding systems. If Google ever add support for Open Location Code to Google Maps then the system could really take-off.

However the biggest problem of Open Location Codes is that the codes themselves aren't very memorable. The Open Location Code for Times Square in New York is '+87G8.Q257HW'. The What3Words code for Times Square is 'bolts.native.year'. The What3Words code is not only more memorable it also easier to communicate to others, for example if you need to pass on the code to a delivery service over the phone.

I don't think What3Words will be worrying just yet.

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