30 June 2012

Turning Right

Recent articles in U.S. media have featured the archaic yet (sometimes) amusing Costa Rican method of identifying locations.  No, they don’t use firstame, lastname, number, streetname, city, state, zip, country.  They use, for instance, “250 meters south of the Zapote Church”.  This is the actual address used by the main offices of the national postal service, Correos, and the offices of the postal customs tax collector. In rural areas, it gets even worse. An approximation of an example given in one of the U.S. publications was to “proceed 2 kilometers out of town and turn east at the yellow bus.”  Turns out the yellow bus was a derelict which had been broken down and left there for more than a decade.  Kind of hard to map out and kind of hard to find in the dark, in an emergency.

This mess is hard to deal with, even with a modern GPS in your car and is probably why there is little or no parcel service outside of the biggest cities and deliveries of any type are spotty.

When this topic comes up on forums, locals and long term ex-pats frequently jump in with comments about “it has worked for years – leave it alone,” or, “it was like this in the USA years ago,” or, “don’t try to come here and change things.” 

Well, it has worked here, sort of, and people are only satisfied with it because they have no experience with an industrial age addressing system or they wouldn’t put up with this kludge; and, yes it worked for years in the RURAL U.S. but it didn’t work once the country grew and modernized; and, I’ve never been afraid to stir the pot when I thought things needed fixing or tweaking, have I friends.

For several years, the country has had an initiative to name streets, put up street signs and create a numbering system – all with very limited success and acceptance. It is bogged down with no sign of life.

Therefore, at the urging of our good friend and fellow blogger Mark, at GoingLike60.com, we make the following proposal to solve the problem:

Virtually every map of Costa Rica is very “wanting” with no numbering system, no street names (and the ones which have been named often have conflicting names/numbers.) However, there is a map which is based on many different current GPS tracks plus comparisons to the best of the commercial Internet mapping companies.  It is available for plotting locations. (See www.openstreetmap.org)

This Plan is to have every building and residence identified on a subset of the Open Street Map, using GPS latitude/longitude numbers.  For instance, the Correos (post office building) of the little town we live in, instead of:

50 meters west of the south side of the church of Atenas, Atenas, Atenas, Alajuela, 20500, Costa Rica

it would be:

9.97772, -84.38090.

Shorter, exact, easy to write or type.  Anybody with a gps device can key this in and be directed, well, directly to the location.

There are many ways this could be set up.  People interested in being found and having an address can go to a post office, point out their location on the map and the post office could lock in the coordinates for their database while providing them to the customer.  Incentive?  Simple marketing can drive home the point that using such a system will result in far less delayed, misdirected or lost mail.  The biggie for the thinking portion of the public is stuff like emergency services being able to quickly find them, because of having a “real” address, instead of searching around a neighborhood for crucial minutes, hoping they’ve got the correct church or bus landmark.

Also, Correos personnel can “mark” a location every time they find one based on the old method and upload it into the database.  Notification could then be mailed to that location giving them a deadline to begin using the new address.

Readily available free services like the website www.goQR.me can take this lat/long number and turn it into one of the new QR barcodes (the square thingies) which can be read by smart phones and plotted directly onto the smartphone’s mapping/gps system.  No “keying in” so less chance of error.  Much more easily machine readable than written out lat/long numbers.

Apart from saving untold gobs of money by not having to run all over the country trying to find somebody, Correos could sell QR address labels, just like stamps.  Since there are probably far less than 10 million mapable locations in the entire country the Correo could also data base all of the QR barcodes into the Cloud, hyperlinked with a TinyURL, and this opens up an online revenue stream as consumers can access and download “their” address or pay to receive labels, rubber stamp, etc.

ICE, the national phone company, should be thrilled because this gives them the potential of placing a smartphone into the vehicle/hands of every Correo, taxi, first responder, delivery person, utility service person and repairman or contractor in the country.

Is the non-technical person (no smartphone, no computer and no desire) out of luck?  Heck no.  They can just keep using the old system.  It works – sort of.  However, their incentive to “come on board” would be intense because they would become more and more marginalized staying with the old.  It would be a benefit for them and the country as they were eventually coerced into participation.

Some tweaks to the idea include things like a distributed network of smart pay phones or, probably more appropriately, pay-to-play kiosks in convenience marts where the public can drop a coin, key in a lat/lon or scan a QR to see a map. For an additional coin, the machine could spit out a paper map.

All businesses with websites can be legislated into mandatorily having a QR of their address prominently on their website.

That's about it y'all. Comments? Improvements?

Best Regards and Good Luck, Costa Rica,

9.98797, -84.37881


  1. Well, Mr. Wegner, it sounds like you've found a retirement hobby. Make it happen.

  2. I had planned to take my position location from google maps tp UPS but this is even better. I will also make up a plack for my front wall with the GPS location so someone would know they have the right place if the were working from a map. more folks should jump on this idea.

    1. Especially the LADRONES!!!!!

    2. Hey, Andy --

      Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier.

      I don't see why having the GPS coordinates of a property available would help the crooks. How does it help them in the rest of the world with street signs and house numbers prominently on display?

      I feel the opposite is true because (WARNING: snarky remark ahead) "if there were real police in Costa Rica," then we'd have some means of directing them quickly to come to our aid in case of a ladrone emergency.

      It is my opinion that everyone having a published digital location won't make any actual difference, either way, with respect to increasing or decreasing crime. Just my non-professional opinion.

  3. Sorry I work in IT. And frankly it sounds kinda like the Imperialist gringo saying yup you ticos this is the best system. It depends and assumes everyone in CR has a smartphone or a computer and that's pretty pretentious. I's say just invest in 'street signs' and address numbers (you could buy at a hardware store) seems low tech but it's proven to work. And frankly even in the US they only changed over in rural areas, a relative of mine just had a box number in rural SD county now they have a proper street address at the nagging of local emergency services. Even in upstate NY, then changed the addressing system, another relative of mine had a low 2 digit number but now has a 4 digit address, the probably aligned their numbering system for emergency services. Maybe it will take a super emergency like a devatstating forest fire for CR to get it and use a simple non tech reliable system THAT WORKS.

    1. Hello, Myst:
      We're sorry you work in IT, too {grin}. (My wife worked in IT for many years and several of my family members are still there.)

      It may "sound like Imperialist gringo" talk but I'm about as far away from such a clown as I think one can get.

      You state, "It ... assumes everyone in CR has a smartphone or a computer." (I assume you meant to include a GPS in the list.)

      No, I make no such assumption and state such. However, I think you need to get out and spend some street time with the people. A shockingly high percentage of the locals are carrying smart phones. Our Nica housekeeper carries a smart phone. We met a 30-something yesterday who works in a local call center ... he was carrying an i-Phone. Stand on a street corner and count the number of cars going by with a GPS glued to the windshield (and assume that every luxury marque car you see has one built into the dash.) We got our smart phone, for free, from ICE. They're becoming omnipresent in many segments of Tico society.

      You mentioned, "just invest in 'street signs' and address numbers ... low tech but it's proven to work." They tried that in several bigger cities. Didn't work. Other than the signs being stolen for the scrap metal value nobody knows exactly why it failed. My assumption is that it failed for the same reason it wouldn't fly today: no money for completion. Heck, they can't come up with the money for a few loads of concrete and asphalt to fix the roads -- how are they going to coordinate the naming of everything, numbering everything named, acquiring the signage (Hardware stores? Nah. street signs are very special. In CR, they even have a government Department of Street Signs!) and then installing it/maintaining it. My proposal here is infrastructure-free.

      You refer to (it) requiring a "super emergency" to get CR to establish a system that works. That is certainly part of what I'm talking about. But on a more day-to-day level, a super-majority of the population now lives in the jam-packed Central Valley. If you're here, on your own, and have a medical emergency ... good luck getting help to find you amid the warrens of (no zoning) apartments, houses upon houses, condos and little winding servidumbre "roadways."

      Out in the countryside, (where forest fires might happen) the problem is not so pronounced ... and they don't care about addresses. I believe I addressed that, too.

      One thing that I didn't address -- and I'm surprised that nobody picked up on this -- is the possibility of the Kessler Syndrome. In short, this would be a situation where two satellites smack together in the orbital band of the GPS satellites, creating a debris "explosion," which could be followed by domino effect of further satellite destructions until there would be no more satellites and the debris field would be so dense and random that it would be impossible to do any replacement launches (or any penetration to any level of orbit, for that matter.)

      This is the real Achilles Heel of the plan but if Kessler happens, I think that navigating our way around CR will be the least of the world's problems.

      So, Myst, come on over and we'll sit and chew a little fat (chicharones). Maybe we can really solve some problems.


  4. UPDATE: 28 Sep 2012 --
    It is in the news today that two national (!) banks have decided to donate $1.2 MILLION to have street signs installed on every street corner in the city of San Jose.

    Oh, by the way, each sign will carry the logo of the respective bank donor on it because, hey, it's only fair.

    Oh, by the way, this is going to come to naught because, ur, they forgot to also budget the bazillions of colones it will take to "study" how to determine the street number of every building and property in the city, how to publish those numbers, thereby notifying the user of said numbering system, how to display those building numbers and instigate/institute some type of program to get people to start using that system.

    I wonder how many street signs the crooks can tear down in a night to sell for scrap the next day. Well, at least the hooch salesmen and drug dealers will have a windfall out of this.

    Thank you BN, BCR and all you hard thinking folks in the CR government.

    {I wonder who's brother-in-law owns the street sign manufacturing business?}