Google launches Plus Codes to give every location in the world a digital address
Addresses aren’t as ubiquitous as you may think.
According to Google, billions of people don’t have an address, or if they do, it’s not very accurate. To remedy the problem, the company created a digital address-making system called Plus Codes.
If you’re a Google Maps user, you probably know you can point anywhere on the world map and get coordinates to that exact location, which you can then share in the form of a long, clunky URL. Plus Codes improve on this by using latitude and longitude to produce a short digital address, representing a specific location anywhere on the planet.
Here’s an example: The Plus Code “W2GJ+JQ, Johannesburg” is the digital address of Google’s office in Johannesburg, South Africa. If you enter this code into either Google Maps or Google Search, you’ll be taken to that location on Google Maps.
To get a Plus Code for a specific location, open Google Maps on your computer, and click on a location to get a little pop-up on the bottom on the screen. Click on the pop-up to get more info on that location in a sidebar, where you’ll also see the Plus Code for that location. On a mobile phone, do a long press on a location to get the pop-up, which you can slide up to reveal the Plus Code.
The cool thing about Plus Codes is that they’re not just some random string of numbers and letters. Creating a Plus Code involves using latitude and longitude to divide the world into a grid, and then using a set of 20 alphanumeric characters to denominate a specific location within a grid. The process is repeated a couple of times to get a more precise location within the grid.
In the end, you get a code that looks like this: “5G5CW2GJ+JQ.” This is the full Plus Code for the Johannesburg location mentioned above, but you can also combine a part of the code with a known physical location. Instead of using the full code, you can omit the first four characters and use the town name in conjunction with the shortened code for your query, such as “Johannesburg, W2GJ+JQ.”
A code can get even more specific if we further divide the grid, adding more characters after the “+” sign, meaning even tiny physical areas like a sidewalk vendor or a street lamp can get their own Plus Code. Alternately, you can remove characters after the “+” sign to get a wider area on the map.
The Plus Codes have been around since 2015. Google made them easier to share on Android devices in May 2020, and the company says it recently refreshed the Plus Codes icon to make it more recognizable.
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Some of the advantages of Plus Codes are obvious. Instead of describing the waypoints to a location to someone, or pasting a massive, unwieldy Google Maps link, you get a fairly short set of characters that permanently represents a specific location. It’s also great for certain locations which don’t have a postal address or a street name. Google also points out that emergency services and humanitarian groups can use the Plus Codes system to more easily find people who need aid, as well as track health programs.
Probably the most important aspect of Plus Codes is that they’re open source and free. Systems similar to Plus Codes have existed before, with examples including AsaaseGPS and CitoCode, but they are typically local and/or commercial in nature.
UPDATE: Sept. 29, 2020, 6:23 p.m. CEST Google Plus Codes originally launched in 2015. Today, the company shared some more information on their impact and how they work. This article originally claimed that the Plus Codes just launched; we regret the error.