Geocoding Place-Names

Peder Gammeltoft, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen

This is the first instalment in a series on geo-coding, with the next part due to be published later this year.

Most people working with place-names know about place-name distribution maps, usually outline maps with dots showing where place-names of a certain type tend to be concentrated. In recent years, we have become used to interactive maps where it is possible to zoom in and out in order to view distributions at different. In addition, it is often possible to click the individual dots to have information shown on-screen. An example of this can be seen here: It is a great way to show information about places and to people who may not at all know about place-names or language in the first place.

“It all looks very nifty! But how can I make one – I have no computing skills!?” If you think like this, then there is light for you at the end of the tunnel. It is not that difficult, really…

All it takes is three things. First you need to add an extra piece of information to your place-name data – coordinates. Then you need to be able to structure your data into a number of manageable data fields. And finally, you need somewhere to publish it. In this month’s feature I will tell you what to do and how to do it, in order to make a map just like the one above – but with your very own place-name data. All the resources used here are available online and the datasets you can produce yourself at no cost. So, it is not just fun, it is also cheap – free actually!

Adding coordinates

It may sound a difficult thing to do, but it isn’t really. Coordinates are really only a way to localise places. Most place-name data already have some form of localisation written into them, usually which parish and county or so. Some, particularly British place-name data have National Grid Reference (NGR) associated to them, too.  Such information can be used to generate coordinates of a more or less precise nature.  If you are starting from scratch, then there are no such possibilities. However, there are several useful homepages on the internet that can be used to add coordinates.

Coordinates are usually in the form of two separate pieces of numbers, either representing latitude and longitude or x and y coordinates. Latitude and longitude is the oldest of these and has been known for centuries, whereas x and y coordinates are a 20th century phenomenon. Most online sites you can use to publish your place-name data on use latitude/longitude coordinates, so it is those we will be concentrating on over the following lines.

Several homepages promise to be able to create latitude longitude coordinates but few offer the functionality of Grid Reference Finder ( Not only does it allow you to add coordinates by marking a spot on an interactive map, you can also get coordinates by searching for place-names, postcodes or British NGR. For the more advanced users the site also offers a batch conversion tool ( if you have a lot of place-names with NGR localisation. It is somewhat biased towards the British Isles, but it actually allows you to attain latitude longitude coordinates from any place in the world.

Every place-name you search for or mark on a map is stored in a list below the interactive map. If you are not happy with the name given to your marker, then you can change it in the list (under ‘Description’). The list also allows you to retrieve additional data, such as postcodes and url-links to the marker points, etc., as is it possible to delete unwanted markers by clicking the trashcan in the right hand side. However, most importantly, you can download the list and use it as the back-bone in the next step.


Figure 1. A few place-names from Harray, Orkney, manually geocoded with

Structuring data

Once you have marked the localities you want, go to the top of the list and select ‘Export points to Excel’. Once you click there a window pops up asking you to copy-paste the list into spreadsheet. Go to your spreadsheet, either e.g. Microsoft Excel or the like. Once open, right-click the left hand corner and format cells and set them all to ‘Text’ format (if you don’t, then you risk that Excel corrupts your latitude/longitude coordinates and changes them into numbers), then you paste the list into excel. You will now see a list reminiscent of what you saw on the GridReferenceFinder homepage. You may not wish to keep all kinds of data generated – data rows can be deleted by right-clicking the top bar and selecting ‘Delete’ and single lines by right-clicking the left bar and then ‘Delete’.

You may now wish to add your own data, such as early forms of the name, a short interpretation in each their data field. If you have information on generics and specifics, then this can be added into separate fields, too. The sky’s the limit, really, for what you can add.

When you are done with adding data, then lean back and look at what you have created. In many ways, the dataset does not differ very much from that of a usual textual place-name description, it is just structured into boxes.


Figure 2. The downloaded dataset in a spreadsheet

 Geocoding your data

Then take the dataset, copy it – don’t forget to include headings – and then open BatchGeo in your browser ( BatchGeo is an online free geocoding facility. On the start page you are asked to paste your dataset into a data window.  Once you do this, BatchGeo starts working on your data. To ensure everything is being generated correctly, click the ‘Validate & set options’ button. Here you see a number of boxes where you can allocate information from your dataset. You do not need to add all your information into boxes, they will be shown anyway. Click also the ‘Advanced options’ button.

The most important thing is to ensure that BatchGeo has placed you latitude and longitude data into the right boxes. If not, select the right fields and allocate them to the latitude and longitude boxes manually. If your data has location information like parish, hundred or county, then you can fill that some of the fields. There is a small window which shows you what happens when you allocate some of your data into the fields. If you want to show the current place-name form in bold, take the field you store your current place-name form information and allocate to the ‘Title’ box.  When you are content with how data looks, then click ‘Make map’ and within a few winks, your map is generated.

The map should have the same number of dots as names in your spreadsheet. Click one of the dots to see if the information is exactly as you would like it; if not go back one step and redo to your liking. If the information looks like you want it, click ‘Save & continue’ and you will be asked to give your dataset a title and a short description. Key in your e-mail at the same time and a link of the map will be sent to you.


Figure 3. The place-names from Figure 1 as they occur in BatchGeo. Note that no loss of precision has happened in the transfer process.

Using your geocoded data

Once you click ‘Save map’, your map is generated and a link is sent to your homepage. Note that the map has a search field in the top right hand corner. This is a very handy feature which is almost unique to BatchGeo. It enables you to search any field in your dataset for any piece of information. You can also use the search field to filter your data. For instance if you want to see your data for a single county (and provided you have that data in a ‘County’ field in your dataset) you can search for e.g. ‘Durham’ and get all your place-names in your dataset located to that county.

If you go to the link sent to your e-mail, then you will see that you have the map link stored there. You will also see a link to an edit-page where you can modify how your data is displayed. There are also instructions as to how to embed your map into your own homepage – for an example of this, see under ‘Geocoded data’ on my homepage, for instance ‘Old Norse Bólstaðr in Scotland’ (

Try and do a few searches – you may have noticed that the dots are lettered, right? Now this is because the individual points you have queried are actually listed below the map. If you search the bólstaðr-names mentioned above, for e.g. ‘Yell’, you will get three hits, and the dots are named ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. To retrieve the data of these place-name dots, either click each dot and see that dot ‘B’ is called ‘Kirkabister’ and dot ‘C’ has the name ‘Utrabister’. If you want to see all the information of your search, just use the right hand scroll-bar to scroll down below the map and there you will see the two Kirkabisters and one Utrabister of Yell! If you want, you can even download the data as a KML-file for display in Google Earth and Google Maps. Very handy and perfectly adequate for most place-name visualisations via the internet.

Now, that wasn’t that hard was it? Now you can generate your own maps!!

BatchGeo has some limitations on their free dataset. You can only geocode 2,500 place-names at the time and your maps are only active if they are used more than once for 60 days. So always keep a copy of the spreadsheet you used to make the map with should you forget to activate your map once in a while.
If your map is about to expire, BatchGeo will notify you and then you can go in and make a few searches and you are safe for another two months – in reality that does not seem to be a problem.  None of the maps I have on my homepage have been about to be deactivated.

What you need to do to make your own maps:

BatchGeo (

GridReferenceFinder (

Spreadsheet in e.g. Microsoft or Open Document format


If you need inspiration, visit my homepage:

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