This post is not about what you think it is, unfortunately. I actually do hope to go to the Easter Island at some point, but this post is about a short story which involves geohash.org, Groundspeak (from geocaching.com), and very very poor minded behavior.
So, before anything else, it’s important to understand what geohash.org is. As announced when the service was launched (also as a post on Groundspeak’s own forum), geohash.org offers short URLs which encode a latitude/longitude pair, so that referencing them in emails, forums, and websites is more convenient, and that’s pretty much it.
When people go to geohash.org, they can enter geographic coordinates that they want to encode, and they get back a nice little map with the location, some links to useful services, and most importantly the actual Geohash they can use to link to the location, so as an example they could be redirected to the URL http://geohash.org/6gkzwgjf3.
Of course, it’s pretty boring to be copy & pasting coordinates around, so shortly after the service launched, the support for geocoding addresses was also announced, which means people could type a human oriented address and get back the Geohash page for it. Phew.. much more practical.
All was going well, until a couple of months ago, when a user reported that the geocoding of addresses wasn’t working anymore. After some investigation, it turned out that geohash.org was indeed going over the free daily quota allowed by the geocoding provider used. But, that didn’t quite fit with the overall usage reports for the system, so I went on to investigate what was up in the logs.
Something was wrong indeed. The system was getting thousands of queries a day from some application, and not only that, but the queries were entirely unrelated to Geohashes. The application was purely interested in the geocoding of addresses which the site supported for the benefit of Geohash users. Alright, that wasn’t something nice to do, but I took it lightly since the interface implemented could perhaps give the impression that the site was a traditional geocoding system. So, to fix the situation, the non-Geohash API was removed at this point, and requests for the old API then started to get an error saying something like 403 Forbidden: For geocoding without geohashes, please look elsewhere..
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the issue. Last week I went on to see the logs, and the damn application was back, and this time it was using Geohashes, so I became curious about who was doing that. Could I be mistakingly screwing up some real user of Geohashes? So, based on the logs, I went on to search for who could possibly be using the system in such a way. It wasn’t too long until I found out that, to my surprise, it was Groundspeak’s iPhone application. Groundspeak’s paid iPhone application, to be more precise, because the address searching feature is only available for paying users.
Looking at the release notes for the application, there was no doubt. Version 2.3.1, sent to Apple on September 10th, shortly after the old API was blocked, fixes the Search by Address/Postal Code feature says the maintainer, and there’s even a thread discussing the breakage where the maintainer mentions:
The geocoding service we’ve been using just turned their service off. That’s why things are failing; it was relying on an external service for this feature. We’re fixing the issue on our end and using a service that shouldn’t fail as easily. Unfortunately we’ll have to do an update to the store to get this feature out to the users. This will take some time, but in version 2.4 this will work.
Wait, ok, so let’s see this again. First, they were indeed not using Geohashes at all, and instead using geohash.org purely as a geocoding service. Then, when the API they used is disabled with hints that the Geohash service is not a pure geocoding service, they workaround this by decoding the Geohash retrieved and grabbing the coordinates so that they can still use it as a pure geocoding service. At the same time, they tell their users that they changed to “a service that shouldn’t fail as easily”. Under no circumstances they contact someone at geohash.org to see what was going on (shouldn’t be necessary, really, but assuming immaculate innocence, sending an email would be pretty cool).
Redirecting users to the Easter Island
So, yeah, sorry, but I didn’t see many reasons to sustain the situation. Not only because it looks like an unfriendly behavior overall, but also because, on their way of using an unrelated free service to sustain their paid application, they were killing the free geocoding feature of geohash.org with thousands of geocoding requests a day, which impacted on the daily quota the service has by itself.
So, what to do? I could just disable the service again, or maybe contact the maintainers and ask them to please stop using the service in such a way, after all there are dozens of real geocoding services out there! But… hmmm… I figured a friendly poke could be nice at this point, before actually bringing up that whole situation.
And that’s what happened: rather than blocking their client, the service was modified so that all of their geocoding requests translated into the geographic coordinates of the Easter Island.
Of course, users quickly noticed it and started reporting the problem again.
The answer from Groundspeak
After users started complaining loudly, Bryan Roth, which signs as co-founder of Groundspeak, finally contacted me for the first time asking if there was a way to keep the service alive. Unfortunately, I really can’t, and provided the whole explanation to Bryan, and even mentioned that I actually use Google as the upstream geocoding provider and that I would be breaking the terms of service doing this, but offered to redirect their requests to their own servers if necessary.
Their answer to this? Pretty bad I must say. I got nothing via email, but they posted this in the forum:
But seriously, this bug actually has nothing to do with our app and everything to do with the external service we’ve been using to convert an address into GPS coordinates. For the next app update, we’re completely dropping that provider since they’ve now failed us twice. We’ll be using only Google from that point on, so hopefully their data will be more accurate.
I can barely believe what I read. They blame the upstream service, as if they were using a first class geocoding provider somewhere rather than sucking resources from a site they felt cool to link their paid application to, take my suggestion of using Google for geocoding, and lie about the fact that the data would be more accurate (it obviously can’t, since it was already Google that was being used).
I mentioned something about this in the forum itself, but I was moderated out immediately of course.
Way to go Groundspeak.
After some back and forth with Bryan and Josh, the last post got edited away to avoid the misleading details, and Bryan clarified the case in the forum. Then, we actually settled on my proposal of redirecting the iPhone Geocaching.com application requests to Groundspeak’s own servers so that users of previous versions of the application wouldn’t miss the feature while they work on the new release.
If such communication had taken place way back when the feature was being planned, or when it was “fixed” the first time, the whole situation would never have happened.
No matter what, I’m glad it ended up being sorted towards a more friendly solution.