Ireland, one of the few remaining countries without postcodes, is to get them next year. But the unusual format chosen for them, in a long-running Department of Communications project managed by consultants Bearing Point, remains controversial.
Critics say the opportunity has been missed to use Ireland’s clean-slate status to produce a technologically innovative postcode system that would be at the cutting edge globally; similar to the competitive leap that was provided when the State switched to a digital phone network in the 1980s, well ahead of most of the world.
Instead, say organisations such as the Freight Transport Association of Ireland (FTAI), the proposed seven-digit format of scrambled letters and numbers is almost useless for a business sector that should most benefit from a proper postcode system: transport and delivery companies, from international giants like FedEx and UPS down to local courier, delivery and service supplier firms.
Because each postcode will reveal the exact address of a home or business, privacy advocates are concerned that online use of postcodes could link many types of internet activity, including potentially sensitive online searches, to a specific household or business.
“We should enjoy a huge technological leap on everyone else by being able to engineer a unique, greenfield solution,” says Neil McDonnell, general manager of
FTAI. "In fact, there is no component of Eircode that could not have been devised by the Royal Mail using quill and ink in 1857, when London got progenitor post codes."
He says the codes – unlike those in the UK or US – are a peculiar combination of being both too general and too specific for anything other than delivering mail or identifying individual premises for water charges, property taxes or other property-related Government and local-authority duties.
The proposed Eircodes comprise an initial set of three numbers and letters that identify one of 139 large “post town” geographical districts across the state. This is followed by a mix of four alphanumeric characters that identify an exact premises: either a household or a business.
But the last four characters are totally random. Though they identify a given building, they carry no relationship to any adjacent buildings, unlike in the UK, where the second part of the postcode identifies a cluster of 15-20 neighbouring buildings.
That means someone sorting packages in Ireland could not look at a parcel and know it should go in a specific group for delivery. Nor could someone spot errors on the basis of postcode – as could easily be done in the US or UK – if a package has been sorted into the wrong van, destined for the wrong village, for example.
The postcodes make little sense on their own. For any functional purpose, they have to be used with a proprietary database that associates the unique seven-digit Eircode with An Post's own GeoDirectory, in which properties are identified by longitude and latitude, similar to GPS systems such as TomTom or Garmin.
But many businesses are likely to baulk at buying an Eircode database, which is expected to cost around €5,000, when they may already have bought the GeoDirectory, enabling them to continue to operate without Eircodes.
Call for a sequenced code
Many parcel and service delivery companies already using Garmin or TomTom may also see little advantage to using an Eircode unique identifier system.
"Postcodes are long overdue and there are many advantages in having a good postcode system. But from an industry standpoint, the unique identifier doesn't really add any advantage," says Niall Cotton, head of deliver for BOC Gases.
“I can’t see it giving any advantage in the supply-chain to deliver to customers. And we’d possibly have to get in a third party [software company] to link the database to our existing scheduling systems.”
Richard Currie of UPS told The Irish Times that the company is "focused on enabling commerce around the globe. It is in this spirit that we request the Eircode system be changed from random unique identifiers to a sequenced code. This would enable improved deliveries and collections, which would have a clear benefit to businesses and consumers in Ireland. Without this change, an opportunity is lost."
The problem, from a number of standpoints, is the way in which Eircodes are constructed, says Antoin O Lachtnain of privacy advocates Digital Rights Ireland. From a privacy standpoint, the general concept of using a unique identifier for each home and business is not necessarily an issue. "You get all sorts of benefits, such as faster delivery of things you've bought," he says.
But a hierarchical code (as in the UK; in which each successive part of the code narrows in on the location of the address) makes more sense from a privacy standpoint and in facilitating deliveries.
A hierarchical code lets a postal worker, parcel sorter, or delivery service know a constrained geographic area at a glance. It also enables internet users to search for a service or calculate a delivery charge before placing an order by using only the initial segments of the code, without having to reveal the entire postcode.
With Eircodes, a full unique code would have to be entered as the initial segment refers to an enormous area. The full code – and hence, full address – could then be linked to a cookie left on a device, he says.
“Under data protection rules that isn’t supposed to happen, but the question is, how closely will that be adhered to? People should have a choice of how much information they want to reveal on a query, as opposed to giving a full code, as needed for the delivery of an actual order.”
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has said that Eircodes, as proposed, will work within data protection regulations, but O Lachtnain questions that.
He adds that structuring a code from a random-order mix of both numbers and letters is probably the worst possible approach, because it is harder for people to remember a random mix of both, especially when no meaning is attached to the position of a number or letter, and it is easy to make errors in reading or transcribing one. And because the code isn’t hierarchical, it’s impossible to spot likely errors.
“You’re now depending on a computer assigning the right sort-code to parcels. It just makes the whole thing more problematical and increases error rates. And anything that potentially introduces mistakes risks increasing costs and delivery delays.”
That’s what concerns Cotton. His business “is all about efficiency, and scheduling, and customers with time windows. You want to know as a customer what time something is being delivered. Postcodes should give you some advantage. But [Eircodes] certainly aren’t going to meet the demands for a sophisticated and efficient system.”
Both McDonnell and O Lachtnain say a hierarchical system linked to GPS-type geocodes would make more sense.
“We could then be the testbed for lots of geo-commercial applications,” says McDonnell.
O Lachtnain says Eircodes go against the drive internationally for taxpayer-funded databases available free or at nominal cost, as part of the growing “open data” movement, enabling third parties to create innovative services and apps around them.
Instead, the proposed system seems dependent on funding itself through proprietary database sales.
Both believe that a random, non-hierarchical unique identifier code, coupled with a proprietary database, will give Ireland a confusing system that will probably have to be rethought in coming years.
The Government has stated that the use of Eircodes – due to launch in the middle of 2015 – will not be mandatory.
“But then,” asks McDonnell, “what’s the point?”