WASHINGTON - Software and data base vendors are struggling to improve their mapping programs so they accurately geocode loans made in rural areas.
Banks can use ZIP codes and sophisticated mapping programs to geocode rural loans more precisely, but the process still can't guarantee accurate results, software vendors said.
In a Dec. 8 letter to Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig, two trade groups asked the government to delay the implementation of data collection requirements under the revised Community Reinvestment Act until July 1. Among the reasons: the need to improve the quality of current geocoding software.
The American Bankers Association and the Bankers Roundtable said some bankers had been told by software firms not to expect more than 70% of small farm and business loans in rural areas to be geocoded properly. That's because many of these loans lack street addresses.
Geocoding assigns precise latitude and longitude coordinates to each loan so credit decisions can be mapped and analyzed. Banks use this information to prove compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act.
"Lack of geographical detail on block numbering area maps often makes it difficult or impossible to locate and properly geocode a number of these loans," ABA chief lobbyist Edward L. Yingling and Bankers Roundtable general counsel Richard M. Whiting wrote in their letter to Mr. Ludwig.
The trade groups expect a response from the regulators on Friday. But agency officials have said that compliance examiners will go easy on banks getting used to the new requirements.
Michelle McBreen, technical support manager at Tactician Corp., an Andover, Mass.-based mapping software firm, said the reliability of the software is severely limited by problems beyond the vendor's control.
For example, many homes on country roads are identified only by rural route number, not by street address. A bank can be left guessing where a borrower lives. Also, small-town dwellers might list a post office box as an address.
Tactician has created a mapping program that lets the user highlight a given area on a map and receive demographic data for that area. Thus, if a bank knows a general area in which a loan was made, but not the specific census tract, it can make an educated guess at geocoding.
"Most mapping software is going to want pure address-matching," Ms. McBreen said. "But our perception is that you could designate this area and say, 'This is our lending neighborhood.'"
Peter Littleton, director of national accounts at Geographic Data Technology, a leading geocoding data base provider based in Lebanon, N.H., said the firm is constantly updating its information to help banks locate their customers.
He said banks can sometimes identify an intersection near a customer's home, thus making geocoding easier. But the problem is that millions of small roads - rural and otherwise - simply aren't illustrated on some software companies' maps.
To fight the problem, Mr. Littleton said his company adds nearly a million streets to its data bases each year. "The software is only as good as the underlying data base," he said. "The more rural routes we can get incorporated, the more specific we'll get."
ZIP codes, either five or nine digits, also can be entered in software programs when no specific street address is available.
"Most of the time that's specific enough, because the area is sparser and fewer loans are made out there," Ms. McBreen said.
However, that could prove inaccurate as well. Rural ZIP codes, like census tracts, are often much larger than those in urban areas, leaving banks still guessing at a customer's whereabouts.
Catherine Bessant, senior vice president at NationsBank, said banks need more specific data.
"There's so much scrutiny being put on banks' performance now under the new CRA rules," Ms. Bessant said. "The change in emphasis makes it even more important to get accurate information."