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Working with Algolia Places address autocompletion api

For a recent mapping project I implemented Algolia Places for address autocompletion to turn an address into latitude and longitude for querying the database. In the past we’ve used Google Maps, but since this project wasn’t using Google Maps for the map display, using the Places API just for Geocoding is against their terms of use. It turns out this was a blessing in disguise – Algolia is fast, easy to implement, and very affordable. There was however one small hitch – the documentation get’s a bit patchy when you go past a basic implementation. To be fair to them – it’s actually because they start presuming that you’ll be using their multipurpose algoliasearchLite.js library rather than the simpler places.js.

Setting up autocompletion

The example from the documentation only needs a small extension to setup – populating hidden latitude and longitude fields from the returned data by using the ‘change’ event:

<script>
var places = places({
    appId: 'YOUR_PLACES_APP_ID',
    apiKey: 'YOUR_PLACES_API_KEY',
    container: address_input
});
places.on('change', function(e) {
    address_input.textContent = e.suggestion.value
    latitude_input.value = e.suggestion.latlng.lat || '';
    longitude_input.value = e.suggestion.latlng.lng || '';
});
</script>

Reverse geocoding

To give users a number of options, we also provided a geolocation button that uses the Geolocation API to let them search using the location reported by their system. The API returns latitude and longitude coordinates. While this is all that is needed to query the database – the UX isn’t ideal as it wouldn’t give a user readable representation of the location. This is important in case the returned location is wrong. Converting the coordinates into an address is called reverse geocoding.

The Places documentation has an example of reverse geocoding but unfortunately this is one that uses the wrong library. While there isn’t official support for Places, Algolia staff do monitor StackOverflow and help where they can. Luckily one such employee, Oliver, saw my query and got me on the right track.

To make a query you pass a compound latitude/longitude string value, and then an object of any options you want to change. For example:

places.reverse(
    '52.817078,-4.5697185',
    { hitsPerPage: 1 }
)

In another difference from algoliasearchLite.js – the response when using places.js is just the array of results. This makes utilising the results trivial. For example:

places.reverse(
    '52.817078,-4.5697185',
    { hitsPerPage: 1 }
).then(function(response){
    var suggestion = response[0];
    if (suggestion && (suggestion.suburb || suggestion.city)) {
        address_input.value = suggestion.suburb || suggestion.city || suggestion.county;
        address_input.value += ', ' + suggestion.country;
    }
});

Here I’ve chosen to populate the address text input field with the town (aka suburb) if available, and then the country. This gives enough information to orientate the user with what search is being done, without distracting them with the potentially/likely inaccurate house number and road level data.

From my experience so far I’d highly recommend you evaluate Algolia Places for your next autocompletion or geocoding project. The only downside I’ve found, common to all providers that rely on OSM data, is that you can’t reliable search by UK postcodes. In a subsequent post I’ll cover implementing getAddress.io – an API to turn UK postcodes into addresses using the Royal Mail PAF data.

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