Python Geocoding Take 1 – International Addresses

This past semester has been the semester of geocoding. I’ve had a number of requests for processing large batches of addresses. Now that the term is drawing to a close, I’ll share some of my trials and tribulations. In this post, I’ll focus on my adventures in international geocoding.

First, it’s necessary to provide some context. As an academic librarian I’m primarily engaged with assisting students and faculty with their coursework and their research. My users are interested in getting coordinates for data so that they can do both analysis and visualization, which requires them to download the actual coordinate data in a batch and integrate it with the rest of their projects.

This is an important distinction to make, because in many cases the large web mapping companies (Google, Bing, Mapquest, etc) are not catering to this population – they provide services and APIs to web developers, so these folks can integrate geocoding services into the Google, Bing, etc maps they are embedding in their website. They geocoding providers specifically prohibit (in the fine print of their terms of use) anyone from using their services to create and download geocoded data. This essentially excludes a lot of academic use – which, is something I hadn’t fully grasped at the outset.

Google’s Geocoding API Perhaps?

My adventure began when a professor asked me for help in geocoding about 1 million addresses – in Turkey. Right from the beginning, many of the usual sources I would turn to (for US addresses) were out the window. I knew that I could do small scale batches of international addresses with the mmQGIS geocoding plugin, so I started testing there. The address file we had consisted of unparsed addresses, and the formating looked rather chaotic – but after doing some research I discovered that geocoding Turkish addresses was a tough proposition. The Open Street Map plugin (using Nominatim) returned no matches for our 1000 test cases. The Google results were much better, so we decided to investigate writing a script and using an API and to pay for the matching. According to the documentation, it would end up costing $500 to do 1 million addresses.

I searched around for some Python APIs and found what I believed was the official one for google maps geocoding. So I spent a day writing a script that would loop through the addresses, which we divided into batches of 100k records each (which is the max you can do per day with Google if you set up billing), and the professor obtained an API key and set up billing for the account. The interface for setting up and managing the Google APIs was ridiculously confusing. Eventually we were set and I let the script rip, and found that it wouldn’t rip for long. It would consistently stop after doing a few thousand records. I had written it to write results one by one as they were obtained, and to exit cleanly in the case of errors. Upon exit, it provides the index number of the record where it stopped, so I was able to pick up where it left off. But the server would constantly time out – sometimes it could do 10 to 12k records in a stretch, but often less, so I could never leave it unattended for long. The matches themselves were a mixed bag – you could throw absolute garbage at the Google geocoder and still get a match – if not to an address or property, then to a street segment, and beyond that to useless things like postal codes, administrative districts, and the country as a whole (i.e. I can’t find your address, so here are the coordinates for the geographic center of Istanbul, or for all of Turkey. Have a nice day).

It seemed like it was going to be a long climb to get to 1 million – but after about 100k we could go no further. Google simply refused every additional request. A new API key would get us a little further, but soon after that nothing would work and we wouldn’t get any useful error messages to explain why. Having never done anything like this before, I started to investigate why, and eventually discovered the problem: these web mapping geocoding services, even if you pay for them, are not meant to be used this way. Buried in the documentation I found the license restrictions, which stipulate that you are not allowed to download any of the data, and you had to plot every coordinate you retrieved onto a Google map. This is a service for web mapping developers, not researchers.

Why hadn’t I realized this before? One, I simply had never made this distinction as I thought geocoding was geocoding, and in my world of course people are going to want to download the coordinates. Two, the Internet is full of thousands of little blog posts and tutorials which demonstrate how to use the Google Maps APIs, so I thought this was possible. But they never mention any of the caveats about what you can and can’t do with these services. In addition to violating the service terms, what I was doing was akin to yelling in the back of a crowded room, as I was hammering their server, sending requests as fast as I could with no limit. A normal web mapping application (which is what the service is designed for) would send a fraction of those requests in that amount of time. No wonder the requests were refused. Thus ended my Google geocoding experiment.

Nope – How About ESRI Instead?

So what to do next? I found that most of the other commercial web mapping services didn’t provide anything near the maximum caps and low prices that Google was offering. Mapquest for example requires that you subscribe to an account on a monthly or annual basis, and 100k is the amount you could do in a month. Most of the other commercial services also prohibit any downloads.

The big exception is ESRI – they are one of the few that understand and cater to the academic market, and they do allow downloads: they say quite plainly: “Take your Coordinates with you. Once you have the results of a Geocode operation, they’re yours to take anywhere.” My university has a site license for ArcGIS, but it doesn’t include geocoding. You can create an account and have a certain number of free credits, and after that you pay. 1 mil records was going to cost about $4000 – substantially more than Google, but totally legal. ESRI provides lists of countries and ranks them according to how complete their street network coverage is. You can use their API via a script, or you can set up the service in ArcGIS Desktop and do the matching through the ArcToolbox. This would be painfully slow if you were doing a large job (like this one) but for the purpose of testing it out with a few hundred records this is what I tried. Unfortunately, in our case the results still weren’t good. Most of the addresses were to administrative or postal areas; not specific enough.

The Python Geocoder and a Wealth of Options

What often happens in librarianship when a patron makes an initial request (this should be a piece of cake, right?) and then discovers that what they’re looking for is more involved (ahhh this will be tougher than we thought), is that they reframe the question. He went back through the addresses with a research partner and winnowed them down based on what they really, absolutely needed, so now we were down from 1 million to just finding a match for about 300k. His colleague also suggested that we use Yandex, the Russian search and mapping engine. The structure of Russian addresses is quite similar to Turkish ones, and since Russia is closer to Turkey geographically and economically Yandex might do a better job.

I was dubious of this at first, but was quickly surprised. I found the Python Geocoder module, which provides a common, uniform API to over two dozen different geocoding services – including Google. Given the simplicity and flexibility of this module, it’s the one I should have used in the first place. And while Google limits you to 2500 free matches in one day, Yandex allows you 25k – that’s 25,000 – free matches in one day, without having to request an API key! I modified the original script I wrote to use the Python Geocoder module with Yandex, and the initial small-batch tests were successful. Here’s a small portion of the code – it loops through a file where the address is stored in one field (unparsed):

for index, line in enumerate(readfile):

And it spits you back this JSON result (you could also do XML if you prefer):

{‘quality’: ‘street’, ‘address’: ‘Türkiye, İstanbul, Fatih, Cankurtaran Mh., Ayasofya Meydanı’, ‘location’: ‘Hagia Sophia Museum, Sultanahmet Mh., Ayasofya Meydanı, Fatih/İstanbul’, ‘state’: ‘İstanbul’, ‘lng’: ‘28.979031’, ‘accuracy’: ‘street’, ‘encoding’: ‘utf-8’, ‘provider’: ‘yandex’, ‘country_code’: ‘TR’, ‘ok’: True, ‘status_code’: 200, ‘lat’: ‘41.00772’, ‘country’: ‘Türkiye’, ‘county’: ‘Fatih’, ‘confidence’: 10, ‘bbox’: {‘northeast’: [41.008156, 28.979714], ‘southwest’: [41.007285, 28.978349]}, ‘street’: ‘Ayasofya Meydanı’, ‘status’: ‘OK’}

If the result you get back is not OK (ok is False – nothing matched), then write the record to the unmatched file. Otherwise, get the bits and pieces out of the json object that you want, append them to the record, and write the whole record out to a matched file.

        if result.get('ok')==False:

But is it legal? It was unclear to me; they specify that map data is meant for personal/noncommercial use and in the same sentence: “Any copying of the Data, their reproduction, conversion, distribution, promulgation (publication) in the Internet, any use of the Data in mass media and/or for commercial purposes without a prior written consent of the right holder, shall be prohibited”. Does that mean any copying, or just copying for commercial use or for redistributing the data? In our case, this is for academic non-profit use and the data (individual geocoded records) wasn’t going to be republished – it would be used for plotting distances between locations and making highly generalized static dot maps for an article. At this stage we seemed to be out of options – if you need to geocode a large batch of international addresses, AND you are willing to pay for it, where on Earth can you go?

Ultimately, I left it up to the professor to contact them or not, and we decided to roll the dice. For my part, I engineered the script to put a minimum load on their servers – essentially I could take 24 hours to do 25k records. I used the time and random modules in Python to build pauses in between records to slow things down. In sharp contrast to Google, the Yandex servers were amazingly reliable – they were able to do batches of 25k records every single time without timing out – not even once – and in less than a couple weeks we were finished. About 50% of the matches were good, and for the others he and a research assistant went back and cleaned up unmatched records, and I gave them the script so they could try again.

International Geocoding: The Take-Aways

  1. If you need to geocode a large batch of foreign addresses for academic or research purposes, forget Google. Their service was less than stellar (to put it mildly) and anyway it’s a violation of their license agreement. And all those lousy little blog posts out there that show you how to use the Google Map APIs with Python and say “Gee isn’t this great!” are largely useless for practical purposes.
  2. The Python Geocoder module is simple to use and let’s you write a single script to access a ton of different geocoding services, including Open Streetmap, Yandex, and ESRI. But you still need to review the terms of service for each one to see what’s allowed and what the daily limits are.
  3. If you have funding for your research project, and ESRI geocoding has good coverage for your geographic area (based on their documentation but also on your own testing) then go with them, as you’re free and clear to download data under their terms. Arc Desktop will be too sluggish for large batches so write a script – you can use the Python Geocoder.
  4. Otherwise – the Open Street Map / Nominatim services are worth a try but your success will vary by country. I had used them before for addresses in France with fair success, but it didn’t help me with Turkey.
  5. You can also crawl through the GIS Stackexchange for advice. I’ve found that most of the suggestions are either for US geocoding, or are companies that are answering posts saying “Hey you can try my service!”

Happy geocoding, comrades! In my next post I’ll discuss my experience with batch geocoding addresses here in the US of A with Python.

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