Geo code

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MLS membership

Geo code is short for geographic code. The purpose of geo codes is to enable leadership to group members and households by geographical location for reporting purposes. These codes can be instrumental in creating a proposal for boundary changes. Following are some options of how some stakes have dealt with geo codes.

Stake codes vs ward codes

For each household, if the stake does not have a stake geo code, either the ward code or the stake code that the ward specifies will flow to the stake. If the stake has a stake geo code, the ward cannot change it. A stake code does not flow back to the ward.

Geo codes can be up to eight (alpha and numeric) characters long.

Conventions and examples

The ward and stake geo codes can be specified in a wide variety of ways. The following examples illustrate some possible conventions, but individual wards and stakes should use whatever system meets their particular needs.

A major factor in selecting the scale of appropriate boundary building blocks is density of the LDS population relative to the general population. High-density areas typically will necessitate looking closely at all streets and even individual property parcels. Low-density areas are better off using large-scale units.

Geo Code areas can be thought of as small jigsaw pieces that will be recombined into larger contiguous groupings that comprise ward units. The smaller the jigsaw pieces, the more flexible they can be in trying out possible unit boundaries, but the task will be more complex. The larger the pieces, the less flexible they will be, but the task will be simpler.

Example 1 (TTT##)

CONVENTION: Use a three-letter abbreviation for the city/township/neighborhood followed by two digits (01 to 36) for the square-mile section within the city/township/neighborhood. These are printed clearly on some maps.

EXAMPLE: Put the full code, such as IND04 for Indianfields Township Section 4, in under the stake geo code. Then put just the township abbreviation "IND" under the ward geo code. This way stake leaders and clerks can export lists to a spreadsheet and have the option to use the detailed informatin or use the text-to-columns feature to strip out the numerical portion if they don't want to be that specific.

Since the numbering scheme for township sections is consistent in terms of direction and relative location, one could, if so desired, do a "find & replace" or some worksheet formulas to group the section numbers together into more logical chunks, such as quarters (e.g. northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest). This might be helpful when looking at boundary changes where it might not really be time-effective to evaluate changes on a micro level (i.e. individual square miles).

Example 2 (CW#S)

CONVENTION: Create custom areas within local unit boundaries and then assign each area a three character geo code. The first character represents the county, the second character represents the existing ward, the third character is a number from 0 to 9 (sub-sections of the ward), followed by an optional character (for language-specific or YSA wards).

EXAMPLE: The federal government never owned the land in the northeast part of the United States in bulk; townships or sections have never existed there. Civil boundaries occasionally meet at right angles but almost never on straight north-south or east-west lines. Pennsylvania and New Jersey break counties down by boroughs and townships (which school districts follow) but Maryland, Delaware and Virginia do not follow the same pattern. While Maryland and Virginia schools are organized by county, Delaware school districts are not.

When in a ward or stake covering areas spanning multiple states that were formed using different geopolitical formulas (as mentioned above), it may be easier to create custom areas that represent a unique geo code than to find a common factor among all the different geopolitical formulas.

In this situation, one could start by using the "Fishnet" function in ArcGIS (available beginning with version 9.2; previously known as ArcMap) to create a grid of virtual townships for the stake or ward using a size limitation such as between six miles and ten kilometers on a side. Then overlay them with the other available polygons such as census tracts, census designated places (which include municipalities), school districts, and counties. At that point, consolidate these areas (using "Eliminate" in ArcGIS) to arive at a managable number. When one county is much more densely populated than any others in the stake or ward, separate it out, overlay various polygon features again, and then consolidate some again. This means the cells in that county are smaller in area but usually larger in population than cells elsewhere. Then go through and make sure all ward, branch, county and school district boundaries are represented in the cell boundaries. This means some manual cutting and consolidating. There may be a few cases where the difference between Church and civil boundaries is so minor that one should represent the other.

Then organize these resulting cells into a hierarchy in order to assign each a three-character code. The first character represents a county and, where applicable, a school district. The first and second characters together represent a county, a school district, and a ward. These two characters together (or first if there is only one ward represented) constitute a "zone". Each zone should have a limitation on the number of cells it can contain (e.g. no more than ten cells). Those that do contain more than the set limit should divided. For instance, all zones starting with "2" are in Cecil County, Maryland. Zone 2A is in Newark First Ward, 2B and 2D are in Rising Sun Branch, while 2C is in Smyrna Ward. Each cell in Newark First Ward and Cecil County is coded from 2A0 to 2A9.

Then dissolve the cells by zone and put together a simple map of them with a list showing which zones each school district/county combination or ward represent. Put the resulting map on the bulletin board in the clerk's office (ward or stake). With a quick glance, anyone can take the geo code and see what county, school district, and ward a family lives in. For members in Spanish or YSA branches, one could add an "S" or "Y" as a fourth character. One could also dissolve the cells by ward and have a shapefile showing ward boundaries, albeit imperfectly.

Example 3 (WW##SS##)

CONVENTION: An eight-character geo code where the ward uses the first four characters and the stake uses the final four characters. The area represented by a geo code does not need to be geometrically uniform, square or equal in size to any other geo code. Each ward clerk divides his ward into 10-20 logical units on an ordinary map, and labels them 01-20. Use a ward identifier at the front. The resulting eight-character geo code would use the convention WW##SS## (a two-character ward indicator, a two-digit number, a two-character stake indicator, and a two-digit number).

EXAMPLE: For clerks new to MLS geo codes, their automatic intuition might be to think about map coordinates. For a state with small counties and townships (like Indiana) this might work, but in states with large counties (like Arizona) creating geo codes using established map coordinates would be unworkable. Use county and townships as codes if they are clearly marked on a map. This would work for the rural areas with towns, but it would become unmanageable as the population density increases in more urban areas.

Have each ward clerk take an ordinary map and divide their ward up into 10-20 logical units. The ward clerks know their area the best and are quite capable of making 10 to 20 logical areas in their ward. These divisions do not need to be geometrically uniform, square or equal in size. Label them 01-20 using a ward identifier at the front (such as BG for Beech Grove Ward, so the Beech Grove Ward's geo codes would be BG01 to BG20). There are only eight characters available for geo codes. Let the stake use four characters and the ward use four. If the stake takes more than four, it shortchanges the ward.

Example 4 (TTD##)

CONVENTION: Use a two-letter abbreviation for the city/township/neighborhood followed by one character to indicate direction (e.g. N for north or S for south), followed by two digits (01-36) for the square-mile section within the city/township/neighborhood. These are printed clearly on some maps. The United States Public Land Survey (USPLS) started with the Land Ordinance of 1785 and covers all US land that was not settled by the time of the official government survey. It does not include the east coast states, Kentucky, Tennessee, or Texas. Small areas of other states that were settled before the survey are also technically excluded. This explains the odd shapes of many mining claims in the west. Latter title transfers followed USPLS lines.

The township abbreviations and section numbers may work well, and they are easily see on a map. Depending on where they appear on the map, two adjacent townships may start their section numbers over again (such as 1-36 and then 1-18, or just 19-36), resulting in duplicate numbers. A solution is assign separate township abbreviations for the north or south half of the township, then make the third letter a direction indicator (such as N or S). Make sure the same 3-letter abbreviation is not assigned to any other township in the stake boundaries.

Example 5 (US Census Bureau areas)

Another option in the United States is to use as building blocks the hierarchical boundaries defined by the Census Bureau. Those areas, which correspond to areas of roughly comparable population, also are usually designed to make sense on the ground by utilizing streets, rivers, creeks, railroad tracks, etc.

Census tracts are subdivisions of counties. Tracts are divided into block groups, which themselves are composed of blocks.

This geographical hierarchy can be viewed interactively at the American Fact Finder site at

These Census boundaries also can be downloaded in file formats read, displayed and printed by Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Example 6 (US National Grid or Military Grid Reference System)

The U.S. National Grid is based on universally-defined coordinate and grid systems and can, therefore, be easily extended for use worldwide as a universal grid reference system. The system combines "easting and northing" coordinates in one string of numbers. The coordinates can be easily derived using most commercially-available GPS receivers and online GIS converters.

In addition, it has the advantage of being easily plotted on USGS topographic and other properly gridded maps by using a simple "read right and then up" convention where the user measures to the East and then North in linear increments. The coordinates are easily translated to distance as they are actually in meters rather than the more complex degree based increments of latitude and longitude. Thus the distance between two coordinates can quickly be determined in the field.

In practice, the Ward and Stake Geocode could be identical. Eight digits gives a 10 meter level of precision and six digits gives a 100 meter level of precision. As an example, USNG coordinates for the steeple of the Phoenix Arizona temple are 12S UC 9135629303 (1m precision). The coordinates for the temple site (100m precision) are 12S UC 913 293. Coordinate 12S represents a major grid level encompassing Arizona, parts of Utah and New Mexico and coordinate UC represents a subdivision of the major grid, which encompasses approximately the western half of Phoenix. Since use of the major and sub-coordinates is redundant, they can be omitted, so the 10m precision coordinate for the temple site can be geocoded: 91352930.

Benefits of this method are that the geocode never changes, so once the address is coded, it is coded. It is sufficiently precise for ward and stake needs and since it is uniform, the coding could be automated for the entire church, saving clerks and priesthood leaders many hours of labor. Decision-making regarding boundary changes, home-teaching and missionary assignments is simplified. Emergency response is enhanced and can be more easily coordinated with civil authorities.

Additional helps

Other possible sources of maps -- paper or electronic -- might be local governments. Stakes also might find it useful and relevant to consider school district boundaries.

GIS systems might even be used in conjunction with MLS export files to tabulate directly the demographic analysis required for a Church boundary change proposal.

Other uses for geo codes

Organizing missionary referrals

Print branch directories sorted by location/geo code. This is helpful when missionaries are out proselyting in the area and they want to know if there are any members in the immediate vicinity. The lists can either be sorted by stake geo code, which puts everyone in order by specific neighborhood, or by ward geo code, which puts everyone in alphabetical order by grouped cities/townships/neighborhoods.

Organizing member-missionary work

In areas without full time missionaries, use geo codes to organize member-missionary work. Enter geo codes in the apartment/building number field of the online referral system which your bishop's unit website password might already let you access (this is not recommended if you have full time missionaries in your area because it may greatly confuse your mission office if they are still running MOS). This allows the list of missionary referrals within your boundaries to be sorted by apartment number field and printed in order by township location. This makes it easier to schedule visits to a certain area. If there is already an apartment number in the field, enter the geo code in parenthesis in front of the apartment number.
This page was last modified on 23 March 2013, at 12:07.

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