Photo: Stephen Monroe

The only thing my business IPinfo does is help software developers turn IP addresses into location data. I never would have believed it either, but building that simple location API as a side project years ago has allowed me to quit my job, start a company, and help thousands of developers build location into their apps.

It turns out that I’m not the only one.

Recently IPinfo was featured on the blog of a company called OpenCage. Like IPinfo, Opencage is a growing business built entirely around a simple location API. Theirs makes it easy for developers to resolves geographic coordinates into location data.

 51.5266,  -0.0798 -> Shoreditch, London
 48.1955,  11.5761 -> Schwabing, München
-33.4278, -70.6115 -> Providencia, Santiago

In today’s post I speak with Ed Freyfogle, one of the co-founders of OpenCage, about how he’s taken on Google and built an entire business around geocoding by making a service that’s simple for developers to use.

Ed, thanks for agreeing to chat.

Q: What exactly is geocoding?

While IPinfo turns an IP address into a geographic reference, geocoding is the process of turning geographic coordinates (longitude and latitude) into a geographic reference — such as an address, or a place name — or vice versa. Converting an address into coordinates is known as “forward geocoding,” while coordinates into addresses is called “reverse geocoding.”

Our API allows both forward and reverse geocoding. We do this for the entire world using various open data sources like OpenStreetMap. The openness is a key point because it means you can do a lot more with the data. Proprietary data sources usually come with many restrictions on use — for example, limiting which map you can display the data on, or how long you can store the data.

Q: One of the challenges at ipinfo is that the underlying data is always changing. You must face the same challenge.

Yes, the world changes continually. OpenStreetMap (which is only one of the data sources we use) is getting well over a million edits per day, which is a tribute to the amazing OSM community around the world. That’s great, but from an ops perspective though, yes, OSM is a living beast.

That’s one of the main reasons our customers prefer that we handle it for them; we take that pain away so they can just get on with whatever task they have that needs geocoding.

Q: Who needs geocoding?

The use cases are surprisingly diverse.

The classic situation is someone has a database of addresses they want to show on a map, so they need to forward geocode the list, but we see all kinds of things.

Lots of cases related to GPS tracking, routing, etc. Basically, there are more and more (and ever cheaper) devices that know where they are all the time. So more and more data with a geographic component is being generated, and at some point that needs to get geocoded.

We’re here to help do that.

Q: Why should someone use OpenCage rather than Google’s geocoder?

Google is the best-known mapping/geo service, no doubt. For most of the world Google’s geocoder is very good, but if you’re using it at volume it can get expensive very quickly. For a lot of people the lack of openness of the data — all the different restrictions on how you can use it, how long you can store it — is a reason not to work with a proprietary supplier like Google.

Also, it depends which geographies you are interested in. While in the U.S. or Europe Google is great, in many developing countries crowdsourced open data is better. Finally, a lot of businesses (and consumers) are just not in love with the idea of sharing ever more of their data with the Goog.

Q: Given that OpenCage is using open data like OpenStreetMap, why can’t your users just run it themselves?

Because we’re very good at it and our pricing is very reasonable.

Of course it depends what your exact need is, but in most situations it’s just much more cost-effective to work with us. For our customers geocoding is just one tiny piece of their service, so it’s just much easier to leave that complicated piece to experts and move on to the rest.

Beyond that though, we also do a fair amount to enhance the raw data; for example, we format the addresses correctly, add all sorts of other types of relevant data, and of course we use more geocoders than just OpenStreetMap.

Q: What’s the business model behind OpenCage?

It’s the same as ipinfo. There is a free trial level so that people can test the service, and then various paid subscriptions if you need higher volumes.

Our smallest package is $50/month for an average of up to 10,000 API requests/day.

One thing that customers appreciate about our model though is that we don’t cut them off or start charging more when they hit their limit. Instead we base our pricing on the average use over the course of the month. If you are on average always going over the quota, then we’ll ask you to move to the next tier the following month. So they get the predictability of monthly pricing while also knowing that if there is a short-term demand it will get handled.

People seem to like it.

Q: Why is it called OpenCage?

We think of ourselves as freeing the open data from the cage of technical complexity. Also it’s a bit of a pun on my last name which means “free bird” in German.

Q: Do you ever get asked about IP to location?

Yes! Not every day, but it does come up. We of course then recommend IPinfo. We also use IPinfo ourselves on our pricing page to show the user’s currency as the default, as we explained in our recent blog post. It’s working perfectly; thanks for the great service.

Thanks for the chat, Ed.

With his advice, we’re looking forward to “letting the (geolocation) bird out of its cage,” so that developers can easily make their apps location-aware.

IPinfo is a comprehensive IP data and API provider with flexible pricing plans to meet your business needs. We handle billions of API requests per month, serving data like IP geolocation, ASN, mobile carrier, and hosted domains. Sign up for a free account or contact our sales team to learn more.