Innovators strive to put 7 billion people on the map

Monk's huts in Tigray, Ethiopia. (Credit: Rod Waddington/Flickr)

According to the United Nations, 75 percent of the earth’s population, an estimated 4 billion people, have no address. In regions where this is a particular problem – parts of Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia and Latin America – it can be difficult not only for mailing purposes, but for opening a bank account or reaching someone in an emergency.

A lot of energy and investment has been put into finding a simple, adaptable solution for this frequently overlooked problem. The World Bank has made manuals on how to tackle the challenge, and nongovernmental organizations have made efforts to assign postal addresses to slums.

Now, some innovators are trying to find a solution with algorithms to put each of the world’s 7 billion people on the map.

One of the most successful attempts has been that of a U.K. startup called what3words, which created a patented system that encodes geographic coordinates into three dictionary words. The coordinates 20°06’33.5″N 79°18’58.3″E, for example, will give the address: adaptable.obstinately.bigwig.

Since its launch in 2013, the startup has already raised more than $13.5 million. It’s also being used by the United Nations and courier companies, and was recently adopted for use on a national level in Mongolia.

Others have used similar coding systems but have placed their algorithms into the public domain. Geohash and Mapcode are a few of them; another, Openlocationcode, encodes a set of coordinates into what it calls a “plus code” that looks something like this: 7JGX4858+PF.

So why are there so many options? It appears innovators are striving to create a best-fit model that people are willing to adopt on a global scale. Humanosphere talked to the creator of perhaps the newest addressing model out there – Xaddress – which Paraguayan founder Rober Dam released into the public domain just a few weeks ago.

What helps sets his model apart, Dam explained, is that it’s designed to be decoded without technology. When a user sees a coded address, such as “1031 LOVED WORKS,” he or she can determine its coordinates using just a pen and paper – and maybe a pocket calculator.

Xaddress also may be the first organization of its kind to use a visual error detection system. Every address created gets an image or ‘avatar’ as a visual hash, so if a user mistypes the Xaddress, he will receive a visual cue for his mistake.

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“Visual hashes” from Xaddress

When creating the program, Dam said he took care to get specific feedback from users on what works most easily in the field.

“I’ve learned that people don’t care how short the address is,” Dam said in an interview with Humanosphere. “They care if they can relate [to]how to decode it, that they can determine its coordinates just by looking at it.”

Doing the required calculations by hand can take between one and five minutes, Dam explained, depending on the length of the words used. Although useful for those without access to technology, this method can be cumbersome and impractical for aid workers or others in time-sensitive situations.

With access to a PC or smartphone, however – which is becoming more realistic for aid workers and others in many parts of the world – coding and decoding an address can take a matter of seconds.

In the effort to develop a global addressing system, the importance of ease-of-access is clear. Now, it may be just as important to make sure anyone can use the model freely and easily, with or without a cell phone.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com