Top 5 Eircode Design Challenges

Posted by Pat Donnelly | Apr 11, 2015

The opportunity to design a new postcode system for a country doesn't come along very often. Ireland is the last country in the OECD to introduce postcodes. The challenges range from ensuring rapid adoption to minimising the effects of postcode discrimination.

Postcodes have tremendous utility for non-postal purposes. It may surprise many that in all other countries the sole design criteria has been the needs of the postal service. This is understandable when you consider they have all been designed by their respective National Postal Service.

The advantage of being a late adopter is we have the opportunity to study in detail other postcode systems; what affects their adoption, design limitations, and undesirable side-effects. The list of design issues we considered is too long to capture in a single blog, but the following examples give a flavour of the detailed planning that went into the design:

  1. If disseminated Eircodes used only numbers for the last four characters, what would people do?
    We were concerned that they might use it for an ATM card PIN, or even worse for a House Alarm Code. Only codes with letters and numbers will be disseminated for now.

  2. How do we stop staff members shouting "Hey! Have we restricted %$££$?" to co-workers?
    Yes, there's an App for that. The more offensive the term the more rigorous the application was in restricting Eircodes, e.g. reversing letters. French Connection UK will not find their acronym in Eircodes. We sourced over 130,000 terms across numerous categories but there really is no substitute for the human brains pattern matching ability. Otherwise "VV00" (V V ZERO ZERO) which looks like "WOO" would be an Eircode.

  3. The minimum distance between Eircodes with the same unique identifiers in neighbouring Routing Keys?
    We settled on 300 metres.

  4. How do we define "similar addresses" so we can ensure they have very different Eircodes?
    I get a lot of attempted fast-food deliveries to my house that are really for the "other Number 8's" with similar address, so I answer the door and ask them whether they are looking for "The Close" or "The Crescent"? Addresses may be be confused with each other for numerous reasons, e.g. addresses with the same first line may be confused even if they are at opposite ends of the country. This sets a high bar to ensure similar addresses have very different Eircodes, but that will minimise issues in scenarios that really matter.

  5. Who would be the best source for "curse words as Gaelige?"
    We're protecting our sources to save their blushes, but you know who you are and go raibh míle maith agat.

  6. Whether we should restrict "C3PO" and "R2D2" as Eircodes?
    Who doesn't like Star Wars? As a group of techies we probably weren't the most representative group to answer that question. We did consider whether we should always assign both together, C3PO to a tall thin building and R2D2 to a small blocky building beside it.....

We'll stop there, this blog is in danger of becoming more interesting than intended. We consider the following to be the Top 5 Design Challenges we faced:

1. Eircode is a Postcode

The secondary benefits of postcodes are only made possible by their everyday use in addresses for postal purposes. The postcode design becomes irrelevant if it isn't ubiquitous as people won't have recall of their postcode for other purposes. An Post deliver millions of letters every day, and have sophisticated OCR scanning capabilities but no system will accurately scan 100% of the time (otherwise we wouldn't be bedevilled by "Captcha" on websites). A successful postcode design must enable efficient manual sortation of post, otherwise it isn't a postcode. Calls to remove existing Dublin Postal Districts or introduce a "grid-based" postcode design fail to recognise this reality.

2. Rapid Adoption

It is vital to have full control over the Eircode that is allocated to a property, in order to ensure it doesn't inadvertently cause offense. If the postcode design followed a defined sequence or were derived (e.g. "grid based" postcode) this would not be possible, and you would be subject to random luck whether your property was assigned an undesirable postcode. Existing "grid-based" postcode designs examined by Autoaddress suffer from this issue (e.g. "text speak" issues or not identifying that removing the letter "U" isn't sufficient on its own if "V" remains.)
Autoaddress technology is being used to encode tens of millions of public sector address records to jump-start adoption.

3. Solves the Non-Unique Address issue

A UK style postcode design would not solve the non-unique address issue in Ireland. A unique postcode per address solves the problem. Alternative suggestions to make wholesale changes to addresses would be met with widespread rejection and hamper adoption.

4. Optimised for Error Checking/Correction

Eircodes are designed to be used with addresses, to enable error-checking and correction of both. In the case of non-unique addresses it is obvious that having similar postcodes for identical addresses would lead to errors if a postcode was recorded incorrectly. Eircodes are assigned in a non-random manner to ensure that similar addresses have very different Eircodes. This enables easy identification of errors in Eircode entry, and also enables correction of address entry errors (e.g. 12 Main Street instead of 21 Main Street) . We have included hundreds of thousands of alias address records in the database to further assist validation.

5. Avoids "Postcode Lottery" issues

"Hello I'd like to draw an imaginary line around your house which may affect your property price, insurance costs, your school catchment area, etc. Any problem with that?". The secondary uses of postcodes appeared long after postcode boundaries were introduced in other countries. As we are late adopters these will be immediate. Current rumblings of lack of sequencing/hierarchy in the design would be replaced by local protests against the negative impact of public groupings of properties. Reaching agreement on where to draw the lines could prove impossible.

Imposing a public grouping of properties that introduces postcode discrimination is fundamentally unfair. As Eircode is unique to each property it allows grouping of addresses specific to each use rather than a "one-size-fits-all" approach embedded in the postcode. Therefore hierarchy in the postcode design is not only undesirable, it is simply not required.

The following links highlight issues with the introduction of postcodes in Fermanagh that the Eircode design ensures won't happen here:

Postcode Lottery Issue
http://fermanaghherald.com/2014/06/garvary-resident-out-of-pocket-over-p...

Low adoption
http://fermanaghherald.com/2014/11/only-30-of-fermanagh-residents-using-...

Address change resistance
http://fermanaghherald.com/2012/06/battle-to-save-townlands-moves-up-ano...

Please contact us to find out more about our services and how you can be Eircode Ready for Summer 2015.

Leave a comment

Find out how your organisation can benefit from Address Intelligence.