Bootstrapping location-based services

irish road signs Sean McGrath has a great idea for bootstrapping location-based services in Ireland:

So, the Irish Government is overhauling the speed limit signs. Every town/village in the country has at least one speed limit sign. So, while changing it for the new system, allocate each one a unique four character code. Then, tie the location of the road sign to the code on the web and you have a very simple, very cheap way to deploy location based services e.g. where am I, where is the nearest hospital to me, how far is it to Sligo town, whatever. Just get people to jot down the 4 letter code and then they can use that to find your website etc. Why not? [Sean McGrath]

Undoubtedly the folks responsible for the design of Irish road signs would raise concerns. Will a four-character code be legible? Will it interfere with the primary function of the sign? Still, this is a brilliant suggestion that merits serious consideration.

Internet-related signage has always been problematic. URLs tend not to work well on signage, for the same reason they tend not to work well in spoken discourse. I noticed the other day that the police cars in my town sport a dot-com-era relic: I find this naming convention to be utterly non-mnemonic, though perhaps that's because so few meaningful services attach to these URLs that they just haven't had a chance to sink in.

The TinyURL-like compression achieved by Sean's proposed four-character code is one factor that makes me think this idea could be workable. Another and perhaps more compelling factor is that the codes need not only function as Internet addressess, but also could enter ordinary discourse as a way for people to express locations on highways more granularly than "five point two miles past exit 37."

Terrific idea, Sean! I'll bet there are similar opportunities latent in many classes of signage. When upgrades do occur, it would be great if designers were sensitive to those opportunities.

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