November 14, 2013 | Posted in:Articles

 

The location address system, that is currently most common, and is made up of a number, street, town etc. is a relatively recent phenomenon being established largely to allow the postal services to deliver parcels and letters. I say “most common” but it is hardly a standard. Some countries, especially in Asia, don’t name some streets and other countries, such as the UK, often refer to a house name rather than a number like Portaloo Cottage, Long Windy Lane, Puddenbottomshire. Some developing countries don’t even have conventional streets as we know them.

One location system has stood the test of time and has remained consistent and standard since Eratosthenes first proposed it in the 3rd Century BC. Longitude and Latitude became the location method of choice through the generations for sailors, explorers and more recently pilots. With such an elegant system in place, why then did the ramshackled postal address system evolve?

One reason was that it was easy enough to look at a map and work out the coordinates of a location but it was another thing altogether to work out the coordinates of your current location. So you might know where it was but you don’t know when you got there! Down through the ages many methods have been proposed to compute Longitude and Latitude including finding the position of the sun, stars and moon. In the 18th century John Harrison’s H4 clock enabled the previously elusive Longitude to be estimated effectively at sea but none of these methods are suitable for common usage hence we ended up with the postal address, warts and all.

Time to jump ship

Today we accept a myriad of address systems to deliver communications including Email addresses, URL’s, phone numbers and, of course, street addresses. Most people don’t really know what is contained in an email address that allows a message sent to prettysally551@gmail.com to arrive at its destination or even think twice about having 2 or more addresses for the same location. The technology just works and we lap it up. The definition of your location has also, subtly, changed in that it is not just a house or a building, it’s wherever you are at that time.

So is it time to join the location revolution and adopt a new (old) paradigm of using Longitude and Latitude or GPS coordinates more widely? I think there are 2 questions to answer first in order to decide if the time is right:

  • Do we have technology, available to the public at large, that can reliably determine a location’s coordinates?
  • Do we have the technology so that, like email addresses, we don’t have to think about the coordinates, we just think about “The Richmond Hotel”, the “side door entrance to Bar None”, “My Seats” at the football stadium, “Student entrance to the examination hall” or “Favorite picnic table at the park”?

Answering “Yes” and “Yes” we simply then need to accept that a location shouldn’t be constrained to be just a street address but rather thought of as a point on the planet that we want to get to. A destination!

I can hear the howls now “it’s easy to remember 1600 Pennsylvania Ave Washington, DC” but I’ll never remember 38.898556, -77.037852” and that is probably true, however, you can remember “White House” even more easily. What’s more, this street address takes you to the front gate, yet the coordinates take you to the entrance to the Eisenhower Executive building (assuming this is where you want to go). Besides, if you really need the address it can be resolved from the GPS coordinates. Every address has GPS coordinates but not every set of coordinates has an address!

The availability of mapping infrastructure from Google, Apple and others coupled with the GPS capabilities of modern smartphones are the enabling technology for change. Now we need apps that let us capture, store and retrieve our favorite locations and use them like we use email.

“Not everyone has a smartphone”, true, but not everyone had computers for email but email became inevitable long before it became ubiquitous.

So is the address dead? Probably not yet, but it may need to share the stage. Email didn’t completely starve the life out of  letters, but it ate a big chunk of its lunch. I confess a commercial interest in seeing this thought eventuate as the creator of the location app Here & There, however, the thinking behind this article was the impetus for the app rather than just messaging to exploit it. We may well be in at the beginning of a location revolution.

Roland Thomas
Roland is the founder of Toroid Software Pty. Ltd. and has spent over 30 years working with innovation and technology in the software industry

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