Big Benefit of Small Areas

Have you heard of Small Areas?

Does your business benefit from Small Areas?  If you're wondering what Small Areas are, unfortunately, you're in the majority.   The generic term "Small Areas" rather underplays their usefulness and functionality.  They provide benefits in a wide range of applications including customer profiling, market penetration, epidemiology, risk accumulation, and delivery planning.  Our friends in GAMMA use Small Areas on a daily basis to deliver advanced spatial analytics projects for their customers.

What are Small Areas?

The lowest level that Census information was released in Ireland prior to the 2011 Census was at the Electoral District, which numbers approximately 3,400 areas.  The National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth was tasked with creating smaller areas to allow more detailed analysis of Census information.  They created approximately 18,400 areas that contain 80 to 120 households on average.  

Small Areas respect roads, rivers, etc., keeping properties within a Small Area accessible and homogeneous.  You can download Small Area boundaries from DATA.GOV.IE, Ireland's OPEN DATA portal that publishes Irish Public Sector data in open, free, and reusable formats.  The image below shows Small Areas around Limerick City: Small Areas are available for Northern Ireland, making it an All Ireland solution. You can download NI Small Areas here.

Small Areas and Delivery Planning

Small Areas are perfect as building blocks to define delivery areas and help group and plan deliveries.  In order to demonstrate their effectiveness we'll first compare them to an alternative methodology that doesn't work; grids.  Below is an area around Limerick City with a simple grid superimposed.  At first glance, it appears as though the regular repeating pattern of letters and numbers provides an easy way to group deliveries.  The problem with grids however is they do not respect natural boundaries like rivers or mountains or man-made boundaries like roads.  If we look at grids K8 or M9 we see they will group properties that are not easily accessible from each other, adding inefficiency into the process.  Using smaller and smaller grid sizes doesn't solve the problem, you inevitably end up with a very complicated and long list of grids to remember to accurately describe something like a city boundary.

In order to best utilize Small Areas for delivery planning we want to have a simple labeling system that allows easy grouping for delivery planning.  We'll take the positive aspect of grids here and use a grid-based labeling methodology.  We've used a 10x10 grid with letters A to K ( we don't use letter i) going from West to East, and numbers 0 to 9 going from South to North.  The first two characters describe an area of 45km x 45km and the full four characters describe an area of 4.5km x 4.5km.   First, we assign a four-character grid to each Small Area in the country based on the location of its center point. The resulting labeling is shown below:

Looking at C3H0, C3H1, C3J0, and C3J1 we see that it does a much better job compared to a simple grid of keeping accessible properties together.  However, if you look at D3B0 you will see it includes urban and rural areas.  The next step is to select all the urban Small Areas in the country with a simple query using the freely available Census 2011 information.  We then label these Small Areas with two more characters for a six-character code, with an approximate size of 450m x 450m.  In the image below we've labeled the last two characters of each urban Small Area (click on the image to enlarge):

Small Areas and Eircode

The world-leading Eircode design facilitates industry-specific solutions rather than one-size-fits-all compromises. Any boundary dataset can be used to group Eircodes, for example, detailed flood mapping, without having to arbitrarily choose all the properties within a "postcode boundary".  

The Eircode Database (ECAD) contains administrative codes assigned using Ordnance Survey Ireland detailed mapping.  Small Area, Electoral District, Local Authority, and County codes for every building have been assigned and are stored in the ADMINISTRATIVE_INFO table in the ECAD.  Small Areas are thus an integral part of the design of the Eircode Database.

Our Autoaddress 2.0 control and web services return ADMINISTRATIVE_INFO for a given Eircode.  We can also return a Small Area code for any given latitude/longitude for non-Eircode locations.  This allows anyone to use the freely available Small Area information to bring benefits to their organization.  Our customers in Insurance, Retail, and Telecoms utilize Small Area information returned by our address entry solution in their operations.  We are currently working on two major delivery planning projects that use Small Areas as their basis, the most advanced of these use the next day's delivery information to dynamically re-assign Small Areas between drivers to optimize deliveries.