Plus codes: redefining postal addresses

Google’s Plus Codes initiative to locate homes in rural India with no postal address is to be rolled out around the planet as an open system. In the image, the Plus Code of my office at IE Business School in Madrid: anyone, anywhere in the world, can enter that code, in upper or lower case, on Google Maps, and locate me.

Obviously, in the case of my address in the heart of the Spanish capital, using Google’s Open Code instead of the street name and a number makes little sense; but as the World Bank points out, half of the world’s population do not have an address as such, so the potential benefits are clear. Lacking a postal address means, in many cases denial of basic services such as postal mail, other types of deliveries, emergency services or registering to vote.

Google is offering the system for free and it can be integrated into applications. Plus Codes is based on the Open Location Codes or OLC, a geocoding system designed by engineers at Google’s Zurich offices and published on Github in 2014 under the Apache 2.0 license as an easier-to-use alternative to latitude and longitude coordinates. Plus Codes have been part of Google Maps since August 2015 and are displayed in a browser by adding the code after a bar to the address of the plus.codes page. The service requires a smartphone, something more and more of us around the world are now using, and even in the developed world can speed up finding locations, for example, in small communities in rural areas.

The system is based on a grid that divides the surface of the Earth into small areas that are progressively subdivided into smaller and smaller areas, assigning a unique code to each of them that any person can generate, share and search for on any device. The first four characters are the area code, which describes a region of approximately 100 by 100 kilometers, while the last six characters are the local code, describing the neighborhood and the building, an area of ​​approximately 14 by 14 meters, approximately half the size of a basketball court. If a location is in a city, the first four characters are unnecessary. Another character can be added to provide a 3 by 3 meter area. This level of versatility means the code can be used, for example, to designate different accesses to the same building, an exact location on a long rural road or to geolocate the site of an accident.

Coordinates using longitude and latitude have never been widely used, with the degrees, minutes and seconds seen by most people as cumbersome and complicated, and because a street name and number, even when incomplete, is easier to memorize and doesn’t require a smartphone and a specific application. Other proposed methods, such as What3Words, which hardcodes geographic coordinates into dictionary words that are easy to remember, use proprietary algorithms and, despite having raised significant amounts of money through several financing rounds and getting some interesting customers, they don’t seem to be reaching popularity or a wide adoption among users.

Google is directing this service and others to what has been dubbed “the next billion users.” Could the Plus Code gain traction, replacing latitude and longitude as a location system? Or will its use be limited, as the original model proposes, to those who really need it because they lack an address as such?


(En español, aquí)

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