Rural America. Farm country. Quiet living. Some phrases that come to mind when thinking about a small town like Potwin, Kansas. With a population of 468, how is it possible that Potwin is also home to more than 600 million IP addresses? Some of which are connected to scammers, spammers and fraudsters!

Confounded Coordinates

Using IP geolocation to map a person or a device’s location has varying degrees of accuracy. At its most specific, it could locate a house. At its least specific, it will locate the country in which the device is used. Many fraudsters can keep their locations hidden from mapping tools, except for their country. This causes problems for authorities when they use IP mapping technology to pursue criminals. Especially when the location is incorrect.

Mapping programs use longitude/latitude coordinates to portray specific geographic locations. In order to portray an entire country, it is common to place a coordinate set in the geographical center of that country. However, in this incident in Kansas, an IP geolocation programmer incorrectly rounded the coordinate set that portrays the United States’ geographical center. It resulted in all un-mappable, U.S. IP addresses to be mapped to a residential farm in the small town of Potwin, Kansas.

When a few missing numbers land authorities at your door

Because of this rounding error, IP addresses tracked for wrongdoing were leading authorities and internet fraud victims to “the United States” which specifically pointed to the doorstep of Joyce Taylor’s farm. The Taylor family has since received investigations from FBI, police and IRS agents, and countless threats and harassment from people who have fallen victim to internet attacks. Tracking IP addresses can be a great lead! But, because of a rounding error, it happened to land authorities and internet victims to the Taylors’ front yard which is, after all, a very incorrect lead.

This rounding error cost the Taylor family a quiet life and peace of mind. It stalled legitimate investigations from law enforcement by pointing to a deceivingly specific, yet inaccurate location and caused quite the confusion in this small town. The intelligence programming company has since worked to resolve this issue but, it goes to show that rounding specific location coordinates can have major adverse effects.

Getting to the Center of it

The geographical center of the United States is 39.8282°N, 98.5795°W. A programmer at this IP intelligence company incorrectly rounded these numbers to the nearest whole degree, determining the new “center of the United States” to be 38° N, 97° W – which falls directly on the Taylor family’s front yard. This rounding decision results in a staggering 152.26-mile difference between the true geographical center of the U.S. and Joyce Taylor’s farm, about a 2-hour drive.

Coordinating your Level of Accuracy

Each decimal point of a longitude/latitude coordinate relates to increasing levels of precision. Just one decimal point increases precision to about 6.2 miles (about a town or city level of accuracy). Two decimal points in and your accuracy is narrowed down to the neighborhood. Coordinates showing up to the 4th decimal gives us a “street address” (or rooftop) level of accuracy. Military operations land at the 7th decimal place and civil engineering commonly deals with the 8th decimal (which translates to about “as thin as a paper clip wire”). However, the importance of accuracy to just the 4th decimal determines whether you or your neighbor are going to receive that package you purchased.

IP geolocating is only as accurate as the database which is used to identify the user’s location. The degree of accuracy depends on how updated these databases are, as there is a constant need to change and update this information. Geocoding is the process of converting physical addresses to geographic coordinates, eliminating the need to use these possibly outdated or inaccurate databases to provide accurate locations. Melissa’s GeoCoder utilizes this process to enable businesses to place markers on a map or position the map itself. Melissa’s GeoCoder solution is programmable to geocode (an address is translated into accurate coordinates) or reverse-geocode (longitude/latitude coordinates are translated into a street address). There are different levels of accuracy available, one more optimal than another depending on the application. One can choose from zip-code-level accuracy all the way to rooftop-level accuracy.

Benefits of Better Locations

Geocoding can improve logistics and decrease shipping costs. It can power retail store location and local search lookups to increase customer satisfaction and ease of shopping. GeoCoder will help correct and verify incorrect addresses or autofill those addresses that are incomplete. Melissa offers accurate geocoding for 240+ countries, allowing you to see accurate locations on a map, plan for route scheduling, or to load as input for spatial analysis.

It is vital to be accurate when dealing with location, as demonstrated by the Taylor farm incident. It may even have life-altering consequences. Location accuracy will improve business flow, enhance logistics and analysis, and increase customer satisfaction. The importance of correct coordinates is unmistakable. Don’t let your business falter due to embarrassing rounding errors or inaccurate locations.