Thursday, June 14, 2007

Interesting geography lessons

This probably sounds pretty off-topic for a tech blog, but it's not that far off. Recently I had to populate our database with ISO data about other countries so that we could accurately ship to them, and in the process learned a great deal about foreign geography and postal lessons. The biggest of these lessons was that by comparison, Canada and the US have dead simple postal systems that nobody should screw up. For example, France's geographical (and therefore also postal) subsystem is broken down into 102 departments, which may be further broken down into communes and 'arondissements'. The first 2 digits of a France postal code indicate the department (synonymous with state or province in US/CA) in which the postal code is located, so that even though France's postal structure is more complicated than the US or Canada, that complexity is well managed and actually very easy to deal with (especially for the French since they're the ones that have to move the mail in that country.) Like France, Great Britain has a far more complicated system than either the US or CA.

For comparision, here's what happens in the US/CA postal systems. Each address is broken down as follows :
123 Any St
My Town ABC123 CA

Or, in a more grammar specific way (s+ indicates there may be whitespace, ? indicates optional):
[Street number][s+][Street address,s+]
[Municipality/Town/City,s+][s+][Postal code][s+][Two digit state / province code]
Now, in the US/CA, Postal codes are \d{5} for the US, [A-Z0-9]{6} for Canada, where every CA postal code follows the pattern A1A1A1 (ie alternating letters and numbers, starting with a letter). Very specific and easy to understand.

Now, in Great Britain, a standard sample address is as follows :
[Street number][s+][Street address,s+]
[Postal Code,s+]

And to boot, GB also has Boroughts, Metropolitan Districts, and Unitary Authorities in addition to the counties. And in GB, a postal code matches [A-Z0-9]{6,7}, with no specified interleaving whatsoever, so you can have any possible combination of letters and numbers.

On top of that, there's also the issues of cultural differences within the country at hand. In Canada, there's pretty much English and French addresses, and if an address is French, it stays French (same for English), the point being that it doesn't get Anglicized or Francocized at any point within the postal system. In GB however, there are English and Welsh versions of all the addresses in Wales.

Now, this much complexity in GB (as compared to US/CA) is fine if you live in GB, but if you live outside the country and you're trying to ship to it, and be reliable, GB really blows.

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