Addressing Location

Wed 14th Mar 2018

Google have just announced their Plus Code global addressing concept – where every place on earth has a unique code (up to 10 digits long, optionally 11 for even greater accuracy). This is not actually a new concept, either in the general sense or for Google – What3Words has been pushing their unique, word-based global addressing system since 2013, and Google’s own Plus Code idea harks from 2014…they’ve only just ‘launched’ it.

So, what is it?

I’ll not go into too much technical detail (see wikipedia’s page on the subject for the best overview I’ve read so far), but it basically breaks down the earth into chunks, each of a specific size, and then assigns a unique code to each of those chunks. The largest chunks result in a 2 digit unique code, and then every digit which follows allows you to break down that chunk into smaller sections. Using a 2 digit code, you’ll be covering 20degree squares of the globe – entire countries; but by the time you’ve pieced together your 10 digital code, you’ll be dealing with a block approximately 17metres x 17metres. An optional 11th digit gives you accuracy to 3m x 3m.

Is this new?

The underlying concept – of assigning a code to a location rather than requiring an address – is nothing new: What3Words have been around since 2013 and do something fundamentally very similar – they have broken the globe up into 3m x 3m blocks and assigned three random words to each one. By simply looking up these three words, you’ll find the location, anywhere on the planet.

We’ve also had longitude and latitude for a veeeeery long time – highly granular, numerical positioning based on the nature of the earth itself – as a globe, there are 360 degrees horizontally and vertically to go all the way around; by having a known and fixed point of 0 degrees, you can therefore work out your exact position using co-ordinates.

What are the benefits?

All of the alternative addressing and positioning systems share the same common benefits – they deal with the ambiguous or non-existent nature of street maps, postal codes etc, and they’re easier to remember than longitude and latitude co-ordinates, which can be cumbersome. What3Words in particular, with their approach to using easy to remember, non-conflicting words, offer an extremely easy way for you to share and remember highly accurate global locations.

Google’s Plus Codes maybe be harder to remember than What3Words, but they’re easier to remember – and to write down and recite – that co-ordinates, and they also benefit from being able to be programmatically worked out without being connected to the internet or having an offline copy of a database.

What are the restrictions and highlights of each?

Firstly, let’s deal with What3Words. Put simply, to make use of their unique, word-based positioning, you need access to their database. That’s not to say you need an internet connection – you can have an offline copy of the database, and it doesn’t need to be updated as it’s not subject to random changes – but without a copy of that data, there is no way at all to figure out where a given location is – each block is randomly associated 3 words, and there is no correlation between them even at a highly local level.

In short, if someone gave me their What3Words address, and I didn’t have an internet connection, then right now (as I don’t have their database downloaded locally or any apps installed) it would be absolutely useless to me.

Google’s Plus Codes ARE programmatically created, based on a relatively simple pattern (once you get your head into it). This not only means that you are able to work out the position of any code without needing to look it up from an on or offline database, but also that you can quickly look at one code and approximate its location against another code, based on the digits that are different. You’ll find yourself reaching for a pen and paper, but you can do it.

The problem lies in that you do need to know the pattern used, or you’ll never really be able to figure it out with any great accurately…so there’s still an element of prior knowledge required that, right now, is not something you should be reasonably expected to know.

There is also an ‘opportuntiy’ presented within Plus Codes that I personally think is a negative – the ability to effectively ‘cut out’ the first four digits of the code, which gives you the biggest slice of your locational area (the Country and City), replacing it with the last 6 digits AND the named area. To me, this is like area codes and local codes for phone numbers (in principle it’s exactly that concept), and the problem is, you end up with the requirement to know how to spell and recall the town name / location in a way that your look-up software will recognise and get right (how many places have a ‘Manchester’, for example?).

Co-ordinates are the hardest to remember because they’re just a string of numbers. Long numbers are hard to read and hard to recall. If you put a decimal point in the wrong place, or forget to add the minus (which half the world of which will have one or two of), then you’ll be very, VERY far off your intended location.

If you mix up the order of longitude and latitude, you’ll also be in the wrong place…and far from the first person to do so.

However, they are both universal AND as accurate as you want them to be – without using decimal places at all, you’ll be dealing with blocks less than 100km squared; by the time you add a few decimal places, you’ll be accurate within a few metres…and there’s no real limit to that accuracy – just keep adding more decimal places (and yes, complexity in terms of remembering them!).

The beauty of co-ordinates is that they’re well known. Sure, that’s not always an argument to keep something, but it’s also not a reason to throw something away. You CAN and SHOULD expect a reasonable amount of comprehension with anyone regarding co-ordinates, especially anyone who has ever used a map of any kind.

Co-ordinates are also very useful without any need to convert them into something else, or reference any dataset – given two sets of co-ordinates, asomeone with even a moderately seasoned eye will be able to approximate location, distance and direction without looking anything up or even working anything out; with relatively simple (or certainly well-known) calculations, it’s possible to work out exact distances between two given sets of co-ordinates. It’s even possible to account for the curvature of the Earth.

To work out the distance between two points using Google’s Plus Codes, you’ll first convert the code into co-ordinates, and then use them as longitude and latitude in the same way. To do the same with What3Words, you’ll just query their dataset; and if there’s no access to that dataset, there is literally no way to figure it out.

In summary…

Both What3Words and Plus Codes attempt to solve a problem that definitely does exist – how to map the globe in a way that is more useful and memorable than co-ordinates. However, like many things in life, this ease of use comes at a price.

What3Words is by far the easiest to remember, and the only one that you could imagine actually being able to remember your own address to tell someone, and them then remember it without writing it down; but you need access to their dataset to then make use of that information.

Google’s Plus Codes WILL work offline, but whilst they’re easier to remember than larger co-ordinates, I still can’t imagine me telling someone my Plus Code and them remembering it without writing it down.

Co-ordinates are highly accurate, universally known (though thought of as harder than they actually are to use), but hard to remember; but without any converting or online processing, you can work out a huge amount of geographical information.


Personally, I think we’re still waiting for the best solution to show itself.

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