Locals look to OverHere for direction

Read time 3min 20sec
The mapcode system has divided the earth into a series of grids, so every block on earth has a unique mapcode.
The mapcode system has divided the earth into a series of grids, so every block on earth has a unique mapcode.

A new South African Web site, OverHere.co.za, is using mapcodes to help South Africans find each other.

The Web site officially launched yesterday, and provides a free service that enables people to share and interpret physical addresses in only five to seven characters.

OverHere utilises mapcodes, an open source international system that has been in the public domain since 2008, to help visitors to the Web site generate mapcodes or interpret their location, for free. The service is fully integrated into Google Maps and also provides driving directions to mapcodes and between mapcodes with easy-to-copy direct Web site links.

For example, the address for the centre of the Green Point Lighthouse would be 4X.7R, and the address for Sandton City Parking Entrance is J77.NV6.

The Web site was developed as a December 2018 holiday project by a 33-year-old Pretoria resident, Leon Schnell.

"I first fell in love with the power of 'short' addresses when I visited London in 2009 and was exposed to their postcode system... where short postcodes don't just lead you to a suburb, but to a doorway," Schnell explains.

"Why couldn't we have that in South Africa? Ten years later, why do we still not?"

Schnell says most conventional addresses "are terrible" because they are often hard to communicate by telephone or even to write down accurately, especially in a country with 11 national languages. They are generally useless outside of urban areas with clear street numbering, he adds.

"Even when you get people to the general area, it's difficult to identify details like the exact entrance or parking lot to use. They're hard to fit onto conventional advertising, eg, business cards, billboards, e-mail signatures and press adverts.

"The ramifications of the above on South Africa's economy and social welfare is enormous: whether you're trying to desperately request emergency services or simply get a pizza delivered, having an accurate address that can be clearly and efficiently communicated is critical," he says.

Mapcodes

The mapcode system has divided the earth into a series of grids, so every block on earth has a unique mapcode. OverHere says this provides the accuracy and flexibility of GPS coordinates, expressed in a short code of only a few characters, excluding the country code, which is always 'ZAF' for South Africa.

Schnell says it's important to understand that because mapcodes are open source, their underlying technology is freely available to download and can be integrated into any address-based solution. OverHere has been created as a showcase for what is possible in a South African context and to encourage other businesses and individuals to support this key international innovation.

"As great as modern GPS-based navigation systems are, they're often hampered by the 'human' element: the physical addresses we're stuck with trying to enter into them are either vague, misheard or simply non-existent.

"The mapcodes system was donated to the public domain in 2008, and that makes it more impartial and transparent than third-party services with commercial interests and/or subscription fees. The mapcode libraries (that perform the conversion of coordinates into mapcodes and back) are available for download in full and can be integrated offline into any mapping solution. This makes the system future-proof: you never have to worry about the Mapcode Foundation closing down and your entire addressing system not working anymore."

Although mapcodes are freely available across the world, the OverHere Web site is restricted to the South African region (ZAF) exclusively "in the interests of speed and convenience".

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