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Irish Government moves forward on Postcodes

The government has issued its proposal for moving forward on postcodes. The report that has been prepared covers most of the bases on the issue and puts forward the different types of solution that might be possible. Michael Everson and I have been working on this area for some time, as part of our work with NSAI/ICTSCC/SC4, and we made a short submission to the working group. See also my previous blog trilogy, ‘Coding the Post‘, ‘More benefits of postcodes‘ and the culmination in ‘Regulator publishes Postcodes report‘.

Some of the issues the document touches on are:

– the benefits of the system and the problems it would address

– who would own and manage the system

– what sort of divisions the system would use

The most important thing for the working group to remember in developing this project is: think big and long-term, but to start with something simple that can be rapidly implemented to deliver immediate benefits.

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  1. Which would be the more effective postcode system for a country the size of Ireland: A US number type code or a UK alpha-numeric code?

    Or would the Irish solution be a single letter/numeric hybrid code based on the OS grid?


  2. Well, alphanumeric give you a bigger namespace, but numbers-only is more common internationally. Numbers-only has advantages in terms of being a little easier to key and there’s less chance of confusing a letter for a number.

    It is possible in principle to do a coordinates-based system, and one proposal is the NAC system mentioned in the report. However, it would take a lot of work or require taking over a proprietary database to establish a code for every address in the country.

    There are obviously a lot of other ways to divide it down and to code it.

  3. Back in 1987, Ireland introduced a rather clever and easily parsed vehicle registration system based on a “Year of reg-County abbreviation-Reg number (YY-CC-Num)” system. Could Ireland’s postcode system reflect a similar algorithm like County abbreviation+area number? So for say Killarney in Co. Kerry there could be KY-01 for Tralee, KY-02 for Killarney, and so on from top-down to the smallest villages?

  4. Interesting topic. Depends on what level of OCR the Irish PO use, how granular they want it to be, etc.

    My ZIP code when I lived in the US was 01810 – that’s Andover, MA – only narrows it down to a town of 30,000 population. From there on, I’m presuming delivery was down to manual sorting based on the address.

    Alphanumeric UK postcodes narrow it right down to an individual road (or a short stretch of a longer road). Canadian ones seem similar, but not sure how granular it works out (i.e. much bigger country, but perhaps less urban areas than the UK).

    I’d go for UK-style alphanumeric. Allows OCR to target more specifically, hence getting the right mail to the right postie’s mailbag as quickly as feasible. I do appreciate that this may eventually mean less jobs for sorting staff.

    I think phone-based limitations for alphanumeric are a bit of a red-herring (can’t think of any), and digits are equally succeptible to individual writing styles – my IT-dork profession means I always slash zeroes, and 3 years’ school in France means I always cross sevens & draw top-hat-and-tails serifs on my ones.

    Let’s not forget also that it’s donkey’s years since postcodes were introduced in the UK & still some people don’t use them. Or don’t use them properly – i.e. separately on the bottom line, to facilitate OCR.

  5. Well, the purpose isn’t necessarily to facilitate OCR. An Post already has an OCR system. Anyway, you don’t really actually need to put the postcode on a separate line to facilitate OCR. A large percentage of deliveries are never address-scanned (packets and parcels, for example).

    The problem set is slightly different in the US. All of the US has a standard address format – house number – street – state code – postcode. This isn’t the case in Ireland, where addresses are much more variable. Much of the US has a 5+4 format postcode. Some places even have 5+4+2.

    I think the issue with mixing up handwritten or spoken characters is a real problem, and is much more acute with letters than numbers. However, I don’t have any statistics on this.

  6. “Address” Codes rather than Post Codes are a requirement not just for mail but also for a multitude of diverse safety, losgistics and business requirements. These must define individual buildings and floors within those buildings and NOT general areas. In this way efficient routing for deliveries and road access can be facilitated.

    However, Codes, whatever they are called must be easily remembered – most likely a combination of numerals and letters.

    Also why OCR when genral access to computers and printers can produce Bar Codes from a suitabley web hosted database – The Bar Code can double as the Stamp!!!!!

    Over to you,

    Gary Delaney
    Lt NS(Ret’d),MSc(NavTech),FRIN,MNI

    Secretary Royal Institute of Navigation In Ireland

  7. Well, the international convention (other than in Canada, the UK and to a small extent, Holland) is to use a number-only system.

    A large proportion of Irish letters are currently handwritten. The reality is that only 42 percent of Irish homes have a computer and this figure is not really growing very quickly. In ‘field’ situations (for example when a customer fills a form in a bank, or when a courier receives a pickup or rerouting over the phone) then handwriting becomes very important.
    My view ithat making a handwritten code as unambiguous as possible in written form is important.

    It is also important that codes be unambiguous when spoken. It is very easy to confuse spoken letter codes, for various reasons – that’s why the ICAO/NATO alphabet (slpha bravo charlie and so on) is used (although it never really made much impact on British civilian life).

    I am not going to overstate my claim on this, but my perusal of the memory literature doesn’t suggest that a code of mixed numbers and letters is any easier to remember than a code of numbers alone. If anything, it suggests the opposite to some degree. (See for example,

    What do you think?


  8. Antoin,

    thanks for coming back to me,

    I take all your points,….

    The question of letters versus numerals or combinations thereof is a matter really for implematation – i.e what is most effective for implementing a proposed system. I am open to ideas on this but I do believe letter codes such as used in Vehicle Number plates permit familiarity with general areas making them immediately identifiable.

    On the matter of access to computers – all post offices, banks and many shops do have computers – there is also the potential to locate suitable terminals not unlike those used for mobile phone top ups in retail outlets.

    It should also be noted that most existing Post Code systems were developed in the 60’s aimed at a less technological age – I am not sure that they should be taken as a reference.It would be interesting to know if given the chance the countries quoted in the report would change at this time?

    An Post’s indifference to an Address code is not helpful, however it is my argument that any proposed system must address a multitude of other modern requirements as well as the delivery of mail or direct marketing (association with Direct Marketing is not something that would give any system high levels of popular appeal!!!!)

    I have many ideas on how all this can be achieved and made valuable to Irish society – I will be submitting a paper with my ideas to the working group.



  9. A number of postcode systems have been developed in the last ten years or so in industrialized nations. None of them use letters.

    The current situation with the development is that the working group has concluded its work and the National Postcodes Project Management Board has been established to bring the project forward. There is a tendering process underway for technical and economic services.

    It is quite true to say that the code has to address a variety of different needs. In practice most postcode system internationally are used for a wide variety of purposes, but this is often made more difficult than it really needs to be, because the system is not administered as an open standard.



  10. I would say an alphanumeric postcode of the type used in the UK is preferable to the more common numeric type. This is because it is easier to remember and makes more sense to human beings, as opposed to computers (and of course a computer can handle an alphanumeric postcode just as well as a numeric one).

    An alphanumeric postcode can be easier to remember because it can more meaningful. In the UK the postcode starts with two letters abbreviated from the postal area’s main postal town. I live in Bath so the postal area is BA. This means two fewer characters to remember. In Canada the alphanumeric postcodes are not so meaningful as there is no link between the initial letter and the postal area.

    The postcode is also rather clever as it is not simply a long list of codes. It is hierarchical with four levels of organisation.

    Consider the postcode BA2 2RL

    BA is the postal area Bath
    2 is postal district 2 within postal area BA
    2 is postal sector 2 within postal district 2
    RL is the unit code within sector 2, identifying down to around 20 individual addresses.

    Sadly when Britain adopted the postcode system in the 50s-70s it made a typically British muddle of it, so we have postcodes that don’t conform to the general rule.

    In London a primitive postcode had already been in use for decades and this was not abolished but incorporated into the new postcode. The old London system was divided into West Central (WC), East Central (EC), West (W), North West (NW), North (N), East (E), South East (SE), and South West (SW). For some reason North East and South never existed. Each of these were subdivided into numbered divisions eg W1, N11 etc. When the national postcode was introduced these were used as postal areas and postal districts rather than a specific London code such as a more logical LO etc.

    In addition earlier systems were in use in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow which have resulted in single letter postal areas: B (Birmingham), L (Liverpool), M (Manchester), S (Sheffield), G (Glasgow).

    Lastly, as the number of addresses in Central London have increased, an extra number has been tacked onto the postal district to subdivide it, resulting in odd-looking postcodes such as WC1N 3XX.

    These muddles mean that most but not all postcodes conform to the rule @@## #@@ where @ is a letter and # a number. If these irregularities were removed it would allow one to easily validate a postcode and filter out those that are invalid because they have a letter where a number should be or vice versa or two many/too few characters.

  11. On the subject of introducing postcodes, could someone please tell me if there is an available database containing all of the towns and villages within each of the counties in Eire.
    We are currently putting together a sortation table from data originally received from AnPost but we are continually finding additional towns and vbillages that are not on the list.

    Any ideas or direction would be appreciated.

  12. Please tell me how are Irish counties are abbreviated?

  13. An Post have already spent millions on their cad system which narrows not only down to the house but also whether there are flats ect. this was done along with the OSI and their maps.
    Any new houses, business are updated constantly.
    each postperson updates his own area.
    I suspect minister Dempsey in rushing ahead already has someone in mind for the job of giving the irish people a postal code system.
    It’s starting to remind me of the rush to get voting machines.

  14. Has there been any further progress wrt postcodes for Ireland? I haven’t read about any updates in 7 months or so…

  15. I have finally developed a Location (Post) Code System for Ireland. It is a Seven Character alphanumeric code which defines each 5 meter square in the country and relates to the Irish Grid Coordinates of a location to within 2 metres.
    Now that we have SatNav systems in Ireland that have sufficient road detail to be of use for business and emergency services, we must now adopt a location code system so that spelling, vanity addresses, duplicate addresses and foreign national interpretation errors are avoided. Courier companies want to use SatNav but need Location codes to make it viable. I have it done – it works well and is easily adopted. There is no need to wait any longer for proposals which are focused on postal services that don’t need them and which may be shleved because of a general election in 2008. The logistics industry wants these codes, they are ready to go – lets do it….

  16. Antoin,
    If you had to explain how postcodes will help drive increased volumes of direct mail in Ireland, what would your key arguements be? What do you see as the other core benefits postcodes can bring?

  17. Hi Edward,

    If I had to make an argument for postcodes driving direct mail and maildrops in Ireland. The reasons would be:

    – better statistics, demographic information available about each postcode area
    – easier to mount targeted campaigns
    – possibility of discounted mail for bulk mailers who have pre-sorted by postcode
    – easier to verify addresses (thereby reducing wastage)

    These changes would have the biggest positive effect for small-to-medium-sized direct mailers. The largest direct mailers would gain less advantage.

    That said, I don’t know if I would really make that argument. There are a number of negatives against this as well. On the whole, I think postcodes would only buoy mail volumes by a small amount.

    The real argument for postcodes is really in terms of logistics and service delivery generally. There is a lot more detail I could go into on this.

    Of course, postcodes are just part of overall address reform. There also has to be some sort of centralized national address database in conjunction with it and the addressing system has to be simplified and reformed. Again, there are savings to be made here.


  18. To hell with your postcodes and your direct mail and your maildrops.

    Ireland has had a local address system for more than 1000 years. I know which townland I live in and what it means and will give people directions to my house if they are visiting or delivering something that I have ordered.

    I don’t want and won’t use a postcode that will make it easier for foreign corporations to bombard me with junk mail that I have to pay to recycle.

  19. First, the townlands system is from the late 16th or early 17th century. The earlier divisions were ecclesiastical.

    It increases the costs of every delivery and every site visit if the address is not easily located without requiring expert local knowledge. In the case of something like an ambulance call, the need for local knowledge could cost someone their life.

    An Post already delivers plenty of junk mail. Maybe there should be less of it. But that is a different issue.

  20. As an English man who is about to travel to Ireland to visit my mother and father’s relatives (mum and dad both born in ireland. I find it difficult to understand the opposition to postcodes as here in England we find them very useful for finding places on SatNavs, and the internet. Wouldn’t be without them saves lots of time especially for parcels etc.

  21. Any progress on postcodes under the new minister? I can’t see the disadvantages with a postal code system. I run a small business in rural Ireland and delivery companies can never find my house, often resulting in delays. Also it would allow easier GPS navigation for in car sat-nav more importantly enable emergency crews to pinpoint accident locations for 999 calls. There are many other advantages including reduced mail delivery errors (we still get at least one item of incorrect mail from An Post each week).

    All for post codes here, just wish they would hurry up with it.

  22. Hi Antoin,

    Just read your blog on postcodes. We need a standard numeric system like in a normal modern European country. Buy something from the internet you need a postcode. I make one up! embarrasing for me and indeed Ireland inc. I sometimes use my old German one; 69181. The 6 is The Frankfurt postal area. 9 is the southern sub postal district and the 181 relates to our town and post route. I don’t know how old the system is, but it is indeed very old and is used by many other companies and organizations then the Bundespost. The Bundespost did not lose out, but in fact profited from postcodes and has become today the largest European logistics company.

    Actually I think An Post is not the problem here, rather it is with our planning authorities. When they grant planning permission for a house they do not assign the building a propper street name or house number. This means we do not have the basic requirements of an addressing system which are the street name and house number.
    Why this is still the case I do not know, but I do know we suffered from a brown envelope culture in the past and this could have made life for the developer and planner easier were they to circumvent the few rules we had.

  23. Well now it’s 2008, has there been any progress on this? Apparently not!

    I still propose something similar to the vehicle county registration preambles like D for Dublin, C for Cork, and so on.

    Finland applies an interesting method to rural residential post addresses; the street name + the number of metres from the nearest junction; thus a house 970 metres from junction X on, say, Lake Road, will be numbers Lake Road 97, and the next house 1.5 km from the junction will be numbered Lake Road 150, and so on. I think this is how it is done in the Nordic countries generally.

    How ever it is to be done, the main objective for this should be that the postal address ALWAYS STAYS THE SAME no matter who lives there over the years, decades, generations.

  24. A Geo Post Coding (Location based Post Codes) System is available since 16th June 2008 at

    Niall, referring to your nordic solution – this system could not work in Ireland because we already have non unique addressing so that the “Lake Road” you quote could appear several times in one area causing even more confusion – plus a directional element would also need to be added.

    The National grid system of any country is the best way to define any location – just reduce the number of characters to a manageable 7 alphnumeric characters – and you have PON Codes as available for any location in Ireland – North and South – at

  25. Out of interest, you may know (or may wish to, or neither 🙂 ) that Royal Mail in the UK has a delivery suffix which identifies beyond the ‘address grouping’ level of the XX99 9XX code.

    They use this when printing the barcode on the mail item so that it can be effectively ‘walk-sorted’.

    So, it might be worth considering a lower-level granularity than the current postcode in use in the UK. Royal Mail has determined that it’s not quite fit for all purposes….

    I am sure this point has been made elsewhere, but an alphanumeric code does have the advantage that you can more easily remember the code, I believe, as the codes are derived from the post-town, whereas pure numeric codes are less intuitive…unless you’re in France of course, where (I think) the code starts with the Departement number….

    I would say that, what this tells us, if anything, is that the Irish post code should be appropriate for Ireland, and picking a system which suits another country, whichever it is, would be a poor compromise, and an unsuitable system will just be ignored.

  26. Postcodes for Eire:

    D Dublin
    C Cork
    FG County Fingal (not supported by a’D’postcode, eg Swords, Malahide, Portmarnock, Skerries)
    BY Bray, Greystones, North county Wicklow
    LK Limerick
    GW Galway
    KK Kilkenny
    WT Waterford
    LG Longford
    DK Dundalk
    DO Drogheda
    WK Wicklow
    etc… get the jist

  27. Issue with those town-based divisions is that a lot of the Irish population distribution isn’t based around towns. We’re very different from the uk in that respect. The postal system isn’t necessarily organized around towns either, as it happens.

    I agree that there should be a facility to ultimately break down to the nearest house, along the lines of county (first two digits) electoral division (digits 3, 4 and 5), street or road segment (digits 6 and 7) and individual house (digits 8 and 9). But there is no need to break down to that level at the very beginning.

    There are plenty of problems with letters in codes. From the evidence I am aware of, they aren’t really any more memorable – they just seem more memorable – . You are more likely to make mistakes and misremember when there are letters, especially similar sounding letters, compared to numbers.

    There is a paper on this topic by Hull in Ergonomics (A comparative evaluation of human performance with some numeric, alpha and alpha – numeric coding systems., 1975, Vol 18)

    Very few countries actually use letters in their postcodes, apparently for this reason.

  28. I like common sense uks idea, simple alphanumeric based, GIVE THAT MAN A CIGAR! only joking, simple, its practical, east to identify, almost fool proof i believe

  29. It looks like a good idea, but think about it – is Ireland really town-centred? The population is much more spread out and dispersed than the UK (which is very much a country of cities).

    I am also very concerned about confusion between the letters when written and pronounced.

  30. If France can cater for 60,000,000 people with a simple five digit code why do we have to spend ten million euros to perhaps end up with something as cumbersom as thr UK system?


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