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Potential Failure of USPS, Effects on ZIP Code Geolocation

Posted on 2011-09-06
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Last Modified: 2012-05-12
In recent days the prospects of the economic failure of the US Postal Service has surfaced in the media.  The Postal Service, an idea that made sense to Ben Franklin in the days of the Pony Express, is threatened by financial collapse.  And if it goes, so does the integrity of the ZIP code system?

This impending failure is not really current news.  From years ago, there is this:
http://www.costar.com/News/Article/Outbound-Mail-USPS-Targets-Thousands-of-Branches-for-Closure/113889

Many of my applications depend on geolocation of the ZIP code.  No matter that this is a logical construct without sturdy underpinnings -- most people know their ZIP code and can enter it into a form.  Then we can use geolocation to find the nearest stores.  The answers, though imprecise, are good enough for our clients.

If you're the owner of an application that uses geolocation based on ZIP code, what are your ideas about best practices for us going forward?
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Question by:Ray Paseur
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Michael701 earned 250 total points
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Long ago, I used to use the postal zip code database to fill in City, State names. I quickly learned that every month there are many changes to the database. There are new post offices opened as cities expand and there are old post offices closed as cities decline. In general when a post office closes, the zip code still remains. The mail is just combined into a larger post office that covers multiple zip codes. The old zip codes stayed in the database with the old geolocation.
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by:OmniUnlimited
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I keep up-to-date through the postal service's API.  In fact, all of my current geolocation applications rely on this API.  Although the Postal Service might be in danger of collapse (and I see this more as a result of politics and poor management), the idea of codifying zones is a good and practical one.

With everyone on the lookout for economic opportunity these days, I would venture to say that even if the USPS goes belly up, there will be a ton of private companies ready to jump in there and take up the slack.  People will forever require the transportation of documents and packages, and to make such logistics easier to handle (especially in a computerized world), it is best to regionalize all areas of the world and codify such regions.

I am confident that if I lose the benefits of the USPS API, there will be another system I could link my applications into.
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by:Ray Paseur
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@OmniUnlimited: Have you made your own data base of ZIP codes and geolocations?  I have found several free data bases on various web sites and in my experience they are full of errors and omissions, perhaps because of the changes that Michael701 describes.  I had to scrub these to build my own list, and I have started using my own list exclusively, calling external services only when my data base lookup fails.  It might be a design that would be useful to you, too.

Anyway, thanks to you both for your thoughtful comments.  All the best, ~Ray
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by:Ray Paseur
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Appreciate the good input!
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by:OmniUnlimited
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Hi Ray,

No, actually, for the very reasons that Michael701 describes I have NOT set up my own database.  In my opinion that is a sheer exercise in frustration.

The API I am linked into is supposed to give me access to the USPS database of zip codes, and is supposed to be up to date and up to the minute.  Therefore I count on this database to give me the very latest in zip code information.  I don't think there is a better alternative at this time.

Thanks for an interesting topic, and thanks for the points!
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by:Ray Paseur
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Interesting.  When I tried to use the USPS API (admittedly a few years ago) it was exactly a sheer exercise in frustration.  I found myself dealing with surly and incompetent tech support staff, shoddy documentation, and random incomprehensible errors.  After a week of trying to get it to work, I gave up, got my own data base, cross-checked the zip locations between Yahoo and Google geocoders.  When Yahoo and Google were more than about 1/2 mile apart I handled the ZIP code manually (about 100 such discrepancies).

So different ideas -- but that is what makes markets!  Thanks for your help, ~Ray
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by:OmniUnlimited
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Wow, really?  I too have run across some incompetent technical staff in my dealings, but I've always been able to get through to the issue.  Maybe its because I've set up so many of these (I include the API in just about every registration form I make), that I kinda can do this with my eyes closed.

That is really amazing what you had to resort to though!  How many zip code cross checks are we talking here?  I can only imagine it must have been an incredible investment in time.  And then, after all that investment, significant changes could have occurred necessitating a recheck of all the zip codes.

I can understand why you posted this question.  I am certain you do not wish to repeat that exercise.

Tell me Ray, what sort of information do you need?  I have to confess that the majority of what I do is simple zip code and address verification.

If you have any applications that need this, I will be more than happy to share with you any information I have regarding its setup.
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by:Ray Paseur
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Thanks, my use case is fairly simple and has not resulted in any client complaints so far.

I organize carpools based on the known geolocation of a destination, and the location of potential riders.  The riders are asked for, at a minimum, their ZIP codes and they are free to fill in other address information, as well, but the additional information is not required.  I look up the geolocation of the ZIP code, then I present a Google Map with a draggable icon and say something like, "I think your point of origin is here."  If that's not what they want they can drag the pointer to the right spot and submit the map.  I use the client-verified geolocation to match potential riders, so I am not really dependent on ZIP code locations except as a starting point.

The application works by invitation only, and I do not need any address verification so this has been a workable solution.  But thinking down the road to the unthinkable -- a world without postal workers -- I just found myself wondering what I might do if the ZIP code was somehow lost or superseded.

I cross checked about 35,000 ZIP codes.  But since it was all done programmatically it really did not take any personal time, and was completed in perhaps a week or so, given the limits of the geocoder services in those days.  I knew what I was in for, so I budgeted the time.

I have never found an instance when I had to recheck all the ZIP codes.  As Michael701 pointed out, once set, they tend to stay set.  And when the app encounters a totally new ZIP code, it notifies me and I can update the data base.  Usually that notification is the result of a client typo ;-)
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by:OmniUnlimited
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Whew, awesome.  I was worried there.

Keep me in mind if you ever want to give the API a shot though.  I continue to monitor all my old questions.

Best Regards,

Jason
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by:Ray Paseur
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Thanks, Jason.  All the best, ~Ray
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