A Look at NAC Geographic

By Nora Parker

Xinhang_Shen_Interview Ed. Note: With NAC Geographic Products, Inc.'s recent announcement that their Universal Address System was licensed to US-based Zeitgeist Data Management, Inc.to support ZDM's wellActivity.com application, we felt this might be a good time for a more in-depth look at this Toronto-based company.We contacted NAC's offices to ask if they would be willing to answer some questions for us, and they graciously agreed, offering president Dr.Xinhang Shen for an interview.

NAC is on a mission to "revolutionize" addresses the world over.Eight characters, using a proprietary system developed by NAC, would identify all locations currently identified by addresses in the world.You can geocode your address at NAC's website for free, and get directions to other NAC-geocoded addresses.Partners such as Microsoft's MapPoint Web Service and others are using this technology.

For those of us occupying this industry who have spent significant time working on geocoding issues (dare we even say "problems"?), the idea of simplifying the whole address issue is quite attractive.One interesting twist is that this technology could have a great impact in the developing countries, where traditional addressing schemes are less entrenched - so like the cell phone industry which found an early market in places where there wasn't a good land-based infrastructure, NAC also finds acceptance for their addressing alternative in places like the country of Somaliland, where farm boundaries are being recorded in the official cadastre using NAC's technology.

Some changes are so revolutionary that it's difficult to see how they could ever be implemented.I guess NAC's technology strikes me as being something that we won't see taking over the world right away.But there are some pretty interesting applications already in place, and more to come.So there is the opportunity that small incremental changes will eventually add up.Only time will tell.

Dr. Xinhang Shen was educated at Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China and the Royal Institute of Technology of Sweden, obtaining degrees in Naval Architecture (B.E.), Fluid Mechanics (M.S.), and Computational Fluid Dynamics (Ph.D.).He worked as an engineer, research associate and software engineer at a research institute, at the University of Toronto and at an IT company before he founded NAC Geographic Products Inc.in 1995 to promote the Natural Area Coding System, and is president and CEO.He is a Canadian citizen and lives in Toronto.

Nora Parker (NP): We understand that the methodology for generating the 8- or 10-digit universal addresses is proprietary, but please tell us as much as you can about how it works.

Xinhang Shen (XS): As the world enters into the digital era and the GPS technology is becoming more accurate and affordable, people start to use accurate and complete location information instead of street addresses.However, current longitude/latitude and other geographic coordinates have too many digits for consumers to represent the locations of houses, stores, camping sites, etc in their daily lives.

This problem has been solved by the Natural Area Coding System.Based on the fact that all points can be represented by relatively small areas, the system introduces a unified highly efficient representation called Natural Area Code (NAC) to represent both an area and a point.Natural Area Codes are defined by a series of grids applied on the earth surface called NAC Grids or Universal Map Grids.There are unlimited numbers of NAC grids defined with cell sizes ranging from thousand kilometers to one meter, a few centimeters or even small sizes.A two character NAC is a cell on the first level NAC Grid and can specify an area with width/length about 1000 kilometers like a province; a four character NAC is a cell on the second level NAC Grid and can specify a area with width/length about 30 kilometers like a city; a six-character NAC is a cell on the third level NAC Grid and can uniquely specify a square kilometer area in the world; an eight or ten character NAC (also called a Universal Address) is a cell on the fourth or fifth level NAC Grid with width/length about 30 meters or one meter respectively.

A Universal Address can be used to replace a street address on location based services such as driving directions services, to specify a location which can reduce 80% input characters, extend the services to all locations in the world no matter whether there are street addresses or not, and make the location representations language independent.This is even more significant on wireless devices with small display and keypad on which Universal Addresses can make both start and end locations of a driving directions service fit on a single screen.

Natural Area Codes can be used on all GIS and location based applications to specify areas with any size, anywhere in the world, for both location based search and map retrieving, which will make the systems universal unlike ZIP/postal codes, which are valid only in individual countries, with incomplete coverages.A NAC needs only very few (two, four or six) characters and can tell both the location and size of an area, and is much more efficient than using longitude/latitude coordinates that needs four decimal numbers.

Universal Map Grids can be printed on all kinds of maps with any projections and scales.The grid cell coordinates of these maps are always Natural Area Codes.Any location given as a Universal Address (Natural Area Code) can be directly pinpointed on these maps, unlike a street address that may take a long time to be found on a street map.Therefore, Universal Map Grids can significantly increase the efficiency in using maps for emergency services, tourism, taxi and delivery services.

Since Universal Addresses can be converted from or to other geographic coordinates using mathematical algorithms, they can be directly displayed on GPS receivers without the need of address databases.This will lead to the birth of time-space watches with which people can use an accurate Universal Address as important/often as accurate time for all their daily activities such as recording the accurate location of an accident, a park bench, a camping site, a fishing spot, a store, a restaurant, a hotel, a gathering place, etc.

Universal Addresses can also be marked on street signs to help tourists find their destinations because comparing two Universal Addresses can immediately help figure out the approximate distance and direction is between the two locations.If all street signs in a city are marked with Universal Addresses, tourists will be able to travel around the city easily even without tourist guides and maps.

Universal Addresses can also be used as Universal Property Identifiers to represent individual buildings, houses, gates, doors, bus stops, wells, fire hydrants, electric wire poles, street lights, sewage exits, trees, parking meters, camping sites, fishing spots, emergency locations, and all other fixed objects on the earth.Using Universal Property Identifiers instead of computer-generated serial numbers to represent these objects can make these databases easily exchange information and merge without the problems caused by duplicate identifiers.Universal Property Identifiers are always well aligned, and people can directly tell the spatial relationship between them, unlike computer-generated numbers that do not have any meanings.Universal Property Identifiers can also be pinpointed on all maps with Universal Map Grids directly without the help of computers, and can be navigated to with GPS receivers.

Universal Addresses can be used as Global Postal Codes to sort both domestic and international mail from the world level to the final mailboxes.Eight character Universal Addresses already have the highest resolution in all ZIP/postal codes used in the world.Using Global Postal Codes to sort mail or parcels can also optimize the delivery routes because they have included all the accurate location information of the destination, unlike other ZIP/postal codes that just represent the internal delivery structure of postal services.

Universal Addresses can also be used as a meta tag for all web pages which provide location sensitive information and/or services.Using a NAC meta tag instead of longitude/latitude coordinates based meta tag can make the location tag simpler and clearer and also make the tag easy to sort, search and store.The introduction of NAC meta tags will create a new world wide web for location based search engines.

Universal Addresses can be used to create Universal Photo Identifiers that consist of two parts: location (ten character Universal Address) and time (year_month_date_hour_minute_second) such as: 8CNJK_Q8ZGF-2004-09-03-14-02-59.jpg.Such Universal Photo Identifiers will never be duplicated, and worldwide photographic databases can be easily established and all photographs taken in the world can be efficiently sorted, stored and retrieved.

NP: What industries/companies are adopting this methodology and why? How are they implementing it?

XS: The Natural Area Coding System (including the Universal Address System, the Global Postal Code System and the Universal Property Identifier System) has been widely adopted:

· Somaliland has adopted the system as the national standard for addresses, postal codes and property identifiers;
· TravelGIS uses the Natural Area Codes and Universal Addresses throughout all its applications including the locations of hotels, restaurants, and many other tourist attractions, real-time mapping services, Global Vehicle Tracking System, and Driving Directions Service;
· MLBS.NET uses Natural Area Codes to specify areas for wireless location based business searches and map retrieving and real-time traffic information, and uses Universal Addresses to specify locations for its wireless driving directions service;
· GeoDiving uses Universal Addresses to represent the locations of underwater wreckages;
· SafeAngel uses Universal Addresses as efficient location representations for its wireless location service middleware;
· Lupine Logic uses the Universal Addresses as digital image identifiers and to specify locations/areas on its coyotEYE product; and
· Zeitgeist Data Management uses the Universal Addresses as oil well identifiers and to specify locations for its driving directions service.

NP: I think many readers are intrigued with the idea of universal addresses and geocodes, but most people wouldn't even consider undertaking such an effort because of how difficult it would be to get such a change universally accepted. The barriers to implementing such a system are surely more cultural than technical.Can you comment on that?

XS: It's true that many people are just observing instead of adopting the Universal Address System because they think there are large cultural barriers.This is not quite true.Actually, people can directly use the Universal Address System and benefit from the system immediately.We have noticed that there are already many tourist operators using Universal Addresses as part of their addresses to help tourists find their services more efficiently.They add only a few characters of the Universal Address onto your address, but can help their customers find them more efficiently because of the advantages of the Universal Addresses.

Now there already are 19 countries geocoded with the Universal Addresses (http://www.travelgis.com/geocode/). Many Universal Address powered applications are getting more and more users such as MLBS.NET, the TravelGIS Driving Directions Service which can provide driving directions to 19 countries with street addresses and 25 countries with Universal Addresses. Although the wide adoption of the Universal Address System will not happen overnight, it will be adopted gradually and grow steadily as shown by more and more companies approaching us to get more information about the Universal Address System and negotiate its licensing plans.Therefore, we are very optimistic to the future of the system, just as Mr.Matt Ball - Editor of GeoWorld said on an interview with a Globe and Mail journalist: "This (the Universal Address System) is an elegant solution that seems to supply something that is becoming necessary as the world becomes more globalized" and "It's only a matter of time before something like this will be implemented."

NP: Would it be your hope that this system would replace addresses commonly used to deliver mail, or only used in "background" applications such as routing and LBS applications?

XS: We don't expect Universal Addresses to completely replace street addresses in the world because the long time established traditional address systems won't go away easily.We encourage people to add the Universal Address as a complementary part of their address so that other people can take the advantages of the Universal Address if they know how to use it or simply ignored it if they don't know.Typical applications that can take the advantages of Universal Addresses immediately are wireless driving directions services, navigations systems and location based search engines.If Universal Addresses are put on mail envelopes, postal and courier services can use them to sort mail more efficiently.This can make the transition from conventional addresses to Universal Addresses smoothly.

The major advantage of Universal Addresses is its simplicity for human brains to remember and digest.Therefore, Universal Addresses won't be run only in the background.They will be widely used on human-to-human media (news and documents) and human-to-machine interfaces.

NP: What is the role of the NAC Society, and how effective has it been in getting the Natural Area Coding system adopted? If someone wanted to join, how would they go about doing so?

XS: The International NAC Society is a non-profit organization to promote the applications of the Natural Area Coding System for non-profit activities in the world. It has played an important role in promoting the Natural Area Coding System. It welcomes all people interested in the system to join.There are two kinds of membership: informed members and voting members.It is free to become an informed member while a voting member has to pay certain membership fee.To become a member, you can simply fill in the form.

NP: How long has NAC been in existence?

XS: The Natural Area Coding System was developed in 1994 and has been almost ten years.The initial purpose was to unite the postal code systems in the world.As the research was going on, we realized that sizeless points used in geography do not exist and are not able to be represented accurately either.It's an unwise approach to use such representations.Thus, we introduced a representation to represent only an area.This representation can naturally represent a geographic point when its represented area is relative small.Therefore, it can represent both an area and a point because in the real world a point is always an area no matter how small it is.This approach has unified the representations of both areas and points, which significantly increases the power of the area and location representations.We think this is a theoretical breakthrough in geography, and also in mathematics.

During the early days, there were very few address databases available and GPS receivers were expensive and had poor accuracy, which made the system difficult to use.Recently, as the address databases were gradually established in many countries, many online and wireless location based services start operating and GPS becomes more affordable, more accurate and smaller, the Natural Area Coding System gets the steam to take off.

Now, all kinds of GPS receivers, including GPS phones, GPS watches, handheld GPS receivers and GPS cameras can implement the capability to display Universal Addresses and make the Universal Addresses as useful as time.All kinds of maps in any scales and any map projections can include the Universal Map Grids to produce the same grid coordinates - Natural Area Codes.

All location-based services can implement the Universal Address System.All geographic information systems can be powered by the Natural Area Coding System.Therefore, the Natural Area Coding System will eliminate all the gaps between longitude/latitude, UTM, street addresses, postal codes, map grids and area codes, and unite the representations of locations and areas of all geographic products, services and systems into one highly efficient code for both consumers and professionals, and both human brains and computers.


Published Wednesday, September 15th, 2004

Written by Nora Parker



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