Devil is in the detail of new postcode system

Opinion: Confusion around Eircode is best exposed by looking at its own website

Next spring, 2.2 million addresses in Ireland are going to be assigned a new seven-digit postcode. Photograph: Getty Images

Next spring, 2.2 million addresses in Ireland are going to be assigned a new seven-digit postcode. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Last week, while Ireland was preoccupied by Trichet letters, web summits and Luxembourg’s eye-widening tax noodling, there was an interesting conversation unfolding at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. The topic? Eircode.

Next spring, 2.2 million addresses in Ireland are going to be assigned a new seven-digit postcode. Ireland is the only OECD country that doesn’t have a postcode system, so we need to get on board and retire simpleminded postcodes like “2” or “Tipperary”.

Sinn Féin transport spokesman Michael Colreavy wondered why a “fundamental piece of infrastructure” hadn’t been tested – and then went slightly over the top by suggesting it was another Irish Water.

Eircode won’t be another Irish Water. A postcode isn’t a tangible product and access to it doesn’t require a utility bill.

However there is a sense of a potential mess about it. In Ireland we seem especially incompetent at implementing systems. Anything that involves integrating components to make something work as a whole – from refuse collection to electronic voting to water charges to decentralisation – just isn’t our bag.

The confusion surrounding Eircode is best exposed by looking at how Eircode describes itself on its own website, specifically in the FAQs section. In the ‘How will the Eircode for my house be worked out?’ part, we are told: “Each address will be assigned an Eircode using the Routing Key for its area followed by a 4-character Unique Identifier. A specially designed system will select Unique Identifiers according to a set of rules such as: Certain letters are being left out because they can be confused when written down (eg, the letters O and I can be mixed up with the numbers 0 and 1).” Are you still with me? “We also exclude certain letters than can sound like another (eg, M and N), where clear verbal communication is critical, particularly in call centres.”

I wonder how far this will go? Are B and P for the chop as well? “We also want to avoid creating offensive or otherwise sensitive words or terms (eg, proper names, acronyms, words) within the combinations of letters and numbers.” You can rest assured, then, that your “4-character Unique Identifier” will not in fact label your house ARSE or BONO.

“When we are assigning Eircodes to addresses, we will make sure that physically adjacent addresses do not have similar postcodes, so as to avoid possible miscommunication or confusion, particularly in rural areas where most addresses do not have an identifying number or name.”

This part of the set-up ensures that adjacent codes won’t in fact correlate. Now answer me this, but isn’t that the opposite of not creating confusion?

Opposition

When the great Irish suburban planners were building sprawling, anonymous housing estates, do you think they stood at the gaping maws of culs-de-sac and realised that numbering the houses in order would create mass confusion and so instead the best thing to do was mix it up? No.

The first part of your Eircode (that’s the “Routing Key”, remember) will be the same as your neighbour’s, the second will be different and unique to your home and not in sequence in case anyone builds another home in between two existing homes and then “the code sequence would be broken”, the FAQs explain, channelling Dan Brown. “This would be very disruptive.”

RTÉ reported that the Freight Transport Association (FTA) said Eircode was of no use to people who deliver parcels or pallets. Tom Carr of Pallet Express said that out of 100 hauliers around Ireland, including himself, he didn’t know of any who were approached about the “technical or day-to-day working basis of the scheme”.

I don’t know much about delivering pallets, but Carr’s assertion that because there is no sequencing with Eircode you couldn’t therefore load delivery trucks in accordance with it makes sense.

Richard Currie of UPS said a sequenced code was preferable. Neil McDonnell of FTA Ireland said: “It is totally unsuitable as a modern postcode and should not be realised as Ireland’s national postcode.”

Last month, John Kidd, chairman of the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association, also honed in on the lack of sequencing, saying that it could cause confusion for emergency services. “Response times are always critical and anything that makes them worse is not suitable for our members.”

No legal obligation

The cost of Eircode appears a little ambiguous. When former minister for communications Pat Rabbitte launched Eircode in April, he said the postcode project would cost €25 million over 10 years. The chief executive of Eircode, Liam Duggan, said the State was paying between €15 million and €16 million to introduce and apply the system. In the most recent budget, €9 million was allocated to Eircode.

But my favourite part is this line on the website: “There is no legal obligation to use Eircode on mail.” So we’re spending millions on a “system” that we’re not even being compelled to use.

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