The value and viability of Mapcodes using local tools

November 8th, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

Eleven years after being one of the first grid-based spatial reference systems, Mapcodes was donated to the public domain. Most South Africans remain oblivious to its existence and benefits as a more efficient and accurate alternative to conventional addresses. This article aims to improve public awareness and uptake through a number of practical tools, integrated into common mapping solutions such as Google Maps.

Although Mapcodes have the potential to go beyond supplementing physical addresses to replacing them outright, it would have to overcome immense inertia within South Africa. There is very little public awareness of Mapcodes, barely any local business support of it, and Mapcodes are not natively supported by Google Maps (they are by TomTom).

Fig. 1: A timeline of the development of three popular grid-based addressing systems.


This constitutes eleven lost years: Lost lives due to first responders unable to locate people in emergencies; lost profits due to failed deliveries or customers being unable to find businesses; and lost opportunities for innovation.

Grid-based addressing systems

Grid-based addressing systems are not new: we have all learned how to read and reference cells within conventional printed map books.

Where these  modern addressing systems differ is in their varied approaches to the size and number of their grids to divide the earth into small rectangles; what code is used to reference these rectangles (and how memorable those are and/or easy to communicate); and whether their underlying data and conversion systems are in the public domain or commercial.

Fig. 2: How Mapcodes work.

Benefits of Mapcodes

Because addresses are simply a code that help us find what we are looking for (or for others to find us), one can agree that a shorter and more accurate address is always preferable to a longer, more inaccurate address. Despite this, the persistence of conventional multi-line physical addresses as the primary means of addressing within both business and our personal lives seems particularly baffling. These addresses rely on numbered road infrastructure (a rarity in most of the developing world), are inaccurate at best (any street number can refer to a plot the size of a city block in the case of shopping malls), and clunky to enter by hand into navigation systems. Communicating them telephonically can be downright impossible.

Fig. 3: South African Mapcode examples.

In Fig. 3 the full Mapcode is technically ZAF 4X.7R, where ZAF stands for South Africa. However, as all Mapcodes within South Africa start with ZAF, everyday uses can discard it on the assumption that the code is being used within the country.

Mapcodes have many benefits compared to conventional addresses. They are as accurate as GPS coordinates, but a lot shorter. Because they are so accurate, you can guide visitors to exact entrances or area, and because they are short, they’re easier to remember and communicate, be it verbally, by text message, phone, signboard or business card. Furthermore, Mapcodes are language agnostic, which rule out misspelling, formatting or special characters issues. They exist independently of road infrastructure or signage, and are immune to political changes.

Popular objections to Mapcodes and why they are fallacies

  • Physical addresses are easier to understand and don’t require decoding
  • Nobody is getting lost anymore
  • Close enough is good enough
  • Integrating Mapcodes are way too difficult

Physical addresses are easier to understand and don’t require decoding

When last did you rely only on stopping along the way and asking people how to get to a place? And when last did you write down a Google Location Pin, or read it out over the telephone?

Nobody is getting lost anymore.

This isn’t true though, is it? One of the reasons for this fallacy, of course, is we are all used to points of interest (POI). Type whatever you want into Google Maps and, if you are fortunate enough to live in a city, chances are you’ll get close enough to what you’re looking for. Chances are equally good, however, that you will get terribly lost. Far more common in South Africa is the dreaded unnamed road. The other problem is having to deal with cryptic street names and numbers (Fig.4).

Fig. 4: With unnamed or cryptic street names like these, the opportunities for confusion and getting lost are almost endless.

Close enough is good enough

Not entirely true. You don’t have to look far for examples of POIs for even the most popular destinations failing users. Take Sandton City Mall as an example. Google Maps correctly places a pin in the centre of the mall. However, when you attempt to navigate to this pin by road, Google Maps does not know the best entrance for you to use, so it just takes a guess … and takes you to an entrance for “Reserved Parking” and “Deliveries” (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Close enough is not always good enough.

Integrating Mapcodes are way too difficult (the official international website for the addressing system) provides this clear promise: “Mapcodes are free forever. You can use them in any application you want and you’ll never need to worry about paying a licence or commercial license terms. And you’ll get full access, always, to our algorithms, source code and documentation.”

The Mapcode Foundation provides source code for the Mapcode libraries and instructions on how to integrate these tools at The source code is released under the Apache License Version 2.0. The addressing system is available as both a REST API (which enterprise or government users might find preferable to enable their other applications) as well as in the best-supported programming languages such as Java, C/C++ and JavaScript.

Working towards a solution

There are two simple problems to solve the adoption of Mapcodes: the awareness and demand, and systems integration. So I decided to tap into my (admittedly limited) computer programming and web design experience, and over my holiday created a solution to both of these problems by introducing

My personal programming background was with JavaScript, and so this is the language I selected to power the Mapcode generation and conversion on

If the decision over whether or not to integrate Mapcodes into your existing software comes down to fears over complexity and cost, consider how I used it on my website. After I’d hosted the free Mapcode JavaScript libraries on my website’s server, exactly two lines of JavaScript code was required to convert GPS coordinates into and back from Mapcodes (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Exactly two lines of JavaScript code was required to converting GPS coordinates into Mapcodes (above) and decoding Mapcodes into GPS coordinates (below).

The site features an intuitive interface that allows users to easily generate and interpret Mapcodes; it is free-to-use, and it integrates with Google Maps, considering it is one of the most commonly-used navigation apps.

The site’s six key functions are:

  • Get a better address by generating a Mapcode via a drag-and-drop interface
  • Share your location with a mobile-focused sharing option
  • Get driving directions by integrating Mapcodes into Google Maps
  • Get off-road directions – a proof of concept demonstrating that Mapcodes can be used to find locations independently of any road infrastructure
  • Display a Mapcode’s location on Google Maps
  • Record and label multiple Mapcodes in a single session – making it useful to business applications.

Fig. 7: Overhere’s mobile-optimised interface.

One of the Mapcodes have not caught on is because we are just not thinking about them practically enough. The challenge for Mapcodes at a national and even international level is to allow more users an opportunity to use the addressing system and to integrate it in their daily lives, as well as to challenge some of the fallacies addressed here.

Here’s a new way to think about Mapcodes:

  • Mapcodes are essentially “on-demand POIs”, i.e. POIs that you can generate at will, share easily and immediately, and which are very accurate. Furthermore, the POIs are not tied to a commercial database.
  • The death of “one address for one location” – every shop in a mall could advertise the Mapcode to the nearest parking entrance to it, which is far more customer-centric and useful.
  • Addressing for informal structures
  • A technology enabler: imagine a world with standardised six to seven-digit addresses for every conceivable location. What new business models will be possible?

Make accurate addressing a lifestyle

Assuming that by now you understand what Mapcodes are, why they are important, and what you can do with them, what should your next steps be? Try these three things:

  • Generate and use Mapcodes via and integrate the website into your public or private workflows… this will always be for free.
  • Integrate Mapcodes where you can into your existing systems and advocate for their use: a strong ecosystem raises awareness.
  • Offer your support and professional guidance to by suggesting improvements and highlighting gaps that needs to be addressed?

OverHere is not intended as a gatekeeper for Mapcodes in South Africa, and will have failed in its purpose of making Mapcodes accessible to South Africans if ever it becomes a gatekeeper.

Instead the OverHere tools aim to encourage you to integrate Mapcodes directly into every platform you use in your personal and professional live that offers an address or requires the input of one. If you are being given an “old”, conventional address, why not ask for a Mapcode instead? Or if your website is asking for an address, why not allow users who have Mapcodes to input those instead? You will get input with GPS-level accuracy, which is far better than a conventional address, and in doing so will advance accurate addressing and the many benefits it holds.

Contact Leon Schnell, OverHere, Tel 082 719-9440,

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