PON Codes - a New Geographic Post Code System for Ireland

By Gary Delaney

In early 2010, the Irish postal market will be opened to competition (until now, only the government's "An Post" could deliver ordinary mail), and from that point forward the non- unique addressing system used in Ireland for hundreds of years will no longer be practical for delivering mail. To support the demand for more precise addressing from industries dependent on vehicle navigation, GPS Ireland, a GPS company in Ireland, has developed a post code system based on geographic coordinates. The system is referred to as PON Codes, short for Position Orientated Navigation Codes. PON Codes are seven character alphanumeric codes which have a mathematical relationship to latitude and longitude.

Those outside Ireland find it hard to believe that an address like the following - an actual address that could be delivered by An Post - could work:

The Village Inn
Co. Mayo

It has no property numbers or post codes, but actually does work and allows mail to be efficiently delivered no matter where it has come from. This address, like most outside urban areas in Ireland, is based on a system which is pretty much unique to Ireland and Northern Ireland, where townland administrative areas are a critical part of the address. In this case "Partry" is the townland. There are approximately 55,000 townland areas in Ireland and each can be several hundred square kilometers in area. Furthermore, a typical address would include a family name which could be repeated several times in one townland - for example, there could be three or four Ganley families in Partry.

So how could this type of addressing system work? It has worked in Ireland until recently because An Post, the National Postal Service, has mostly the same postman on every single route every day and he/she delivers not only on the basis of address but also on the basis of accumulated local knowledge and personal acquaintance with property occupiers, both residents and businesses.

Can this type of addressing system work for the future in Ireland? Unfortunately, the answer is no! For this reason, in 2005, the then Minister for Communications, Noel Dempsey TD (TD is the Irish version of Member of Parliament in the Irish language), bowed to pressure from the business community and proposed the introduction of a post code system by January 2008 to resolve the non-unique address issue and the additional costs associated with it. The initial deadline for implementation has long since passed, and investigations into a suitable system are still ongoing under the new Green Party Minister, Eamon Ryan TD.

In the mean time, emergency services in Ireland report common instances of arriving at the right address but in the wrong location! Couriers reacting to strong growth in deliveries as a result of Internet purchases (approximately 12 million Euro/day in Ireland) still declare an approximate 3% failed delivery rate due to an inability to find an address. Other organizations delivering their services by road and trying to benefit from the use of SatNavs are still wasting fuel and time looking for a specific address within a townland area.

It is for these reasons, and in the absence of a definitive national plan, GPS Ireland has developed and launched PON Codes. They have a resolution of +/- six meters and are mathematically related to the new ITM grid for Ireland, which is in turn linked to latitude and longitude WGS84 data. Each PON Code is engineered by the developed algorithm as it is calculated to ensure that it is always alphanumeric and with letters and numerals in definitive positions, making it markedly different from any NAC code. Because of its geographic relationship, the PON Code solution offers the potential for every property in Ireland to have its own unique code, and is significantly different from other post code systems for that reason.

One of the reasons why Ireland's traditional addressing system will not satisfy current and future demands is that courier companies, such as DHL, are very conscious of their fuel costs and related carbon emissions. Now, new entrants into the postal market could not support the traditional postal delivery model with a dedicated postman on each route. They will be using the courier-based model which involves a van covering a very wide area with potentially sparse delivery points. Local knowledge is not a major part of this model. In fact, it is of no value in the sorting depot, where route optimization and maximization of load factors supported by GPS and GIS technologies are the keys to viability. For this reason, a post code even capable of indicating to a van driver which side of the road the delivery will be on is critical and this is what PON Codes can offer.

DHL has been funding research into these technologies. In this regard, to take full advantage of emerging solutions, post codes must have as fine a resolution as possible and even post codes in the UK, which serve areas rather than individual points, may have to be modified to suit. As PON Codes are geographically related, they can be very easily adopted in GIS and SatNav/GPS systems without the need for an expensive look-up address database, which is costly to update and therefore may frequently be out of date. For this reason they may be adopted outside of Ireland also. Furthermore, non-structures or listed addresses such as musical or sporting events, local or street markets, mobile medical services and emergency water supplies, etc. can all have PON codes - something that is not possible with traditional address database post code systems.

Part of the delay in finalizing the proposed National Post Code system for Ireland is the old post code related argument about where the polygon based divisions will be. In spite of the fact that the most recent consultant's report to the Irish government on this matter has recommended a system which has the potential for a unique code for each property, all Irish government backed proposals to date have been area based and suffer from ongoing arguments about where divisions should or should not be. The Dublin City area has had long standing postal divisions and the possibility of these changing is causing hot debate because in some cases property values may be dependent on them.

When PON Codes were developed, a direct relationship to geographic coordinates was considered essential to avoid the postal areas and divisions debate. This had also been identified by the Irish National Statistics Board (NSB), which in its report on the proposed post code system stated:
"Significant value is added to data when it can be spatially mapped. A point-based postcode system that uses grid reference/GPS technology would provide a relatively clear-cut approach to allocating a postcode to an address ... a geo-coordinates approach would permit an early introduction of postcodes at a relatively low cost. It would also avoid the very difficult task of trying to group households together into small area clusters that are meaningful both to policy-makers and for postal delivery."
Many in the GIS industry tend to think of post codes as useful polygons which can be used for analysis. It is often forgotten that post codes are only polygons because in the 1950s when they began to emerge, the technology to manage and take advantage of point based post codes, although ultimately desirable, did not widely exist. Consequently, GIS analysts have become accustomed to using arbitrarily based area codes which could never cleanly define areas of similar income bracket or house type, especially in Ireland since affordable housing is nowadays an integral part of most housing developments. A post code system such as PON Codes is the perfect solution, as PON Codes are point features which can be tested against any administratively, geographically, physically, socially or arbitrarily devised polygons that can be created in a GIS. In addition, with new housing development and changing density, there is no need to move the post code polygons, as is routinely the case in the UK, where a property's post code may change on occasion.

Because PON Codes do not need a database to function, they are inexpensively implemented and can be administered to some degree by users themselves, taking advantage of modern Web mapping and SatNav resources. Garmin, the manufacturer of the most popular consumer GPS receivers in Ireland, has implemented PON Codes for testing on the Garmin Nuvi 700 series of SatNavs and has received extremely positive feedback for navigation requirements by the logistics community and emergency services. Implementation has also been tested using Web map services and GPS coordinates and full implementation could take advantage of the grid coordinates in An Post's Geodirectory to associate PON Codes with the 1.7 million pre-surveyed Irish addresses held therein.
The PON Code can be shown on the correct side of the road. (Click for larger image)

_While the Irish government seems to be digging in for much more debate on the location of postal area polygons for its long delayed Post post Code code system - which, if ever implemented, may still not satisfy the route and load optimization requirements of the new mail and logistics delivery models - PON Codes are already being used and routinely now appear on travel and tourism related websites in Ireland. And finally, the full address for the Village Inn in Partry with PON Code is now:

The Village Inn
Co. Mayo KTQ 02F3

Published Friday, October 10th, 2008

Written by Gary Delaney

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