MAPS may be about to be reinvented again. Ever since the global positioning system (GPS) developed by the US military was opened to civilian use, it has been regarded as the standard for locating a point on a map.

Unfortunately, for most people it is also a recipe for getting lost because the intricate codes and symbols are unforgiving.

Present someone with a code comprising the basic mapping elements of “degrees, minutes and seconds” and they are already lost — on their own devices. Most cannot use a keyboard to find the symbol for degrees, let alone work out the precise format required with its spacing, characters, capitalisation and compass points.

Enter Mapcodes.

Shortly after the GPS was opened to the public in 2000, two of the founders of Dutch navigation and mapping company TomTom, Pieter Geelen and Harold Goddijn, refined the simple concept of allocating groups of letters and digits to represent any location on the surface of Earth. The name of the country can be specified, but inside a country it can be as simple as four digits separated by a dot.

The concept was donated to the public domain in 2008 and the Mapcodes Foundation was established a year ago “to provide, support, distribute and stimulate the use of mapcodes, free of charge, as widely as possible”.  Emphasising that mapcodes are no longer only a TomTom product, the foundation is working closely with Google and Nokia to build the option into their mapping systems.

“It’s a very simple short code for XY coordinates,” said Etienne Louw, general manager of TomTom Africa. “They’ve created a reference grid around the world at an accuracy of 5m². I can go anywhere and get a code of between four and six characters, on average, depending on the size of the country. In South Africa it ranges from four to seven characters.”

The Mapcode Foundation’s Amsterdam offices, for example, can be found at the mapcode “2W.JW”.  A specific parking spot outside TomTom Africa’s offices in Centurion would be “RDD.2J”.  Searching for the same spot from the Netherlands needs the international standard country code and would render it “ZAF RDD.2J”.

Mapcodes solve a major problem in location-based services, in particular on mobile devices. Moreover, it solves the problem of making any location on Earth addressable.

“With a maximum of nine characters, including the country code, billions of XY locations can suddenly be referenced,” said Louw.

A great example of how it can work is a project in the Western Cape, where TomTom Africa and Dimension Data are working with the department of health to use Mapcodes in dispatching ambulances.

“How do I get an ambulance into a rural area or informal settlement where someone has had a heart attack?” asked Louw. “It’s a solution for unaddressable areas, but also for the addressable world. Someone can have a heart attack at Melrose Arch or at a funeral in Soweto and I can give a mapcode to bring emergency responders directly to the location.

“Even inside the structured world, I can tell parents to meet at a specific spot on a sports field in a school complex.

“It’s delightfully simple and it works around the world.”

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times