African Postcode Safari: Tracking the Latest Boundaries for New Digital Maps

By Christopher Guider

African countries have postal systems as unique as the patterns on giraffes' coats; no two are alike. As a result, GfK GeoMarketing's cartographers had to painstakingly track down information on postal systems and regional boundaries throughout Africa in order to create a reliable cartographic basis for the entire continent.

GfK GeoMarketing released these new digital maps for all 56 African countries in May 2011. The maps provide up-to-date coverage of at least the two-digit postcodes for all countries that have postal systems. In the case of Kenya, Swaziland, South Africa and several others, more detailed postcode boundaries are available.

Political boundaries

It's essential that maps be precise and up-to-date because old boundaries result in errors when carrying out software-based regional analyses. It is nearly impossible to obtain suitable maps for Africa - most other map sources are neither up-to-date nor comprehensive. In Africa, not all countries have official bureaus of cartography or statistics. GfK GeoMarketing offers a large digital postcode and administrative map collection, and updates these maps regularly. Even so, the production of maps reflecting the current boundary status for all of Africa's countries was a challenge. The official boundary data supplied by authorities in African countries were often outdated and unreliable. As a result, GfK GeoMarketing had to piece together information obtained from a variety of sources, including – in some cases - official boundary decrees and ordinances.


"Some African countries do not have official bureaus of statistics or comparable organizations that we normally consult for data [in the rest of the world]," explained Klaus Dittmann, head of cartography at GfK GeoMarketing. "Consequently, our cartographers had to do a lot of research. We were able to obtain relevant data from non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. We then had to piece together these fragments into maps that meet our high quality standards. Even with the latest technology, we had to track down an enormous quantity of information in order to successfully render up-to-date maps."

Postcode usage - theory vs. practice

While many African countries have postcodes, these often play a subordinate role to P.O. boxes. Much more common are P.O. boxes and communal mailboxes. These are used instead of address-specific postcodes in many rural regions and cities. Even in countries with functioning postal systems, postal organizations do not always offer comprehensive and gapless coverage, such as in desert regions.

Egypt postcodes
Cairo postcodes.

Beyond postcodes

There are 56 African countries, each with maps for at least two of the three categories: postal, administrative and topographical. The postal and administrative maps feature varying regional levels, each in a separate map layer. Among the topographical maps are layers containing cities organized by size, airports, main streets and bodies of water. This adds up to a total of approximately 600 map layers of data. Both the administrative and postcode boundaries have been completely redigitized. The new map edition renders the largest and second-largest administrative levels for almost all countries on the continent. Using Senegal as an example, coverage is provided for the "regions" (largest level) and "departments" (second-largest level). Coverage of the third largest administrative level is available for South Africa, Morocco, Western Sahara, Congo, Egypt and Tunisia. Topographic details are also provided, including cities organized by size, airports, main streets and bodies of water.

All maps provide a very granular rendering of coastlines and bodies of water. This is particularly important for usage by the insurance and reinsurance industries, as the risk of water-related natural disasters in Africa is high. It may sound strange when one thinks about the huge African deserts, but Africa is also regularly hit by tsunamis and floods.

"We're extremely proud of what we've achieved with this new map edition," said Dittmann. "We've managed to produce a reliable cartographic basis for spatial analysis and planning of all types throughout the entire African continent."

Published Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Written by Christopher Guider

Published in

Location Intelligence

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