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Addressing the Unaddressed: giving hope and home to millions

Addressing the Unaddressed: giving hope and home to millions Addressing the Unaddressed
20 Jan
Most of us will have never considered the importance of having a home address, but for millions of people on the planet, lacking one can have serious consequences

Of all the difficulties facing the residents of India’s slums, many are obvious on first sight. Dwellings are hemmed in, without access to water or electricity. Rubbish piles up, children play near railway tracks and open sewers run through the streets. But though less obvious, there’s another fundamental issue that prevents slum dwellers from participating in society, one which exacerbates many of these physical problems – most people have no formal address.

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This situation is a fact of life for slum dwellers all around the world. Over the past decade, developing countries have seen a huge growth in rural-to-urban migration and the chaotic and unstructured movement means governments are often unable to identify or locate individuals. From Mumbai to Durban, Mexico City to Rio de Janeiro, approximately one billion people now live on less than $2.50 a day in urban slums, while a wider four billion are estimated to lack access to the rule of law. Most of these people have no address and no legal identity, locking them out of the basic safeguards enjoyed by the rest of the population.

It means that slum-dwellers are denied almost all basic services: health benefits, retirement benefits, amenities such as electricity and water, the ability to save money, take-out a loan or exercise voting rights. It’s also a problem that not all governments are keen to change, according to Anup Malani, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who researches life in slums across India. ‘The city is not going to come in and give you an address – for the same reason it’s not going provide electricity or water – because it doesn’t want to encourage the slums,’ he says.

As a result, many slum dwellers are reliant on informal or black market suppliers of services, particularly water. In India, Malani says that while some local governments distribute public water tanks others, such as that in Mumbai, do not. The only option left is to turn to what’s known as the ‘water mafia’ – an extortionate private service. It means that the poorest people in the world pay much, much more for the basic requirements of life than the richest. Very quickly, an address becomes more than just a number.

Addressing the Unaddressed’s ten-digit alphanumeric codesAddressing the Unaddressed’s ten-digit alphanumeric codes are based on latitude and longitude


The addressing problem has not gone completely unnoticed. In 2015, the Universal Postal Union (the UN agency that coordinates postal systems around the world) held a conference to present a white paper titled: Addressing the world: an address for everyone, an initiative that explicitly acknowledged the problems associated with having no address. ‘Today, an address is considered part of a person’s identity,’ wrote Edouard Dayan, director-general of the UPU. ‘In developing countries, physical addresses frequently exist only in major city centres. In such countries, many streets have no names and properties are not numbered. It is therefore difficult or impossible for public services and businesses to reach their target customers.’

One person present at this conference was Alex Pigot. Having spent 30 years working in the postal industry in Ireland, he had already heard about this problem and conceived a simple solution. In 2013, he and his partner Tina Roche set up Addressing the Unaddressed, a not-for-profit organisation now working in Kolkata. The approach was, and still is, very simple. An on-the-ground team enter a slum and, after explaining their work to the community, generate a unique ten-digit alpha-numeric code for every property, based on latitude and longitude. The code is printed onto a plaque, placed above the door, and in one fell swoop that dwelling has an address. In the early days of the work the team used its own coding system, but a partnership with Google means that it now uses PlusCodes – Google’s own coding system – and around 50 Google staff now support the original group of 20.

This help has allowed the charity to speed up its work. At least one-third of Kolkata’s 14.3 million-strong population lives in 5,500 unregistered and registered slums. To date, the charity has provided addresses to some 175,000 individual dwellings, which means that 700,000 slums dwellers now have a unique identity. The aim is to finish work in Kolkata by the end of 2020.

But there’s more to this than simply sticking codes to doors. If people are going to make use of their addresses, getting buy-in from local service providers is essential. Richard Mason, an honorary fundraiser at Addressing the Unaddressed, who was also present at the UPU conference in 2015, says that the charity has had real success in this regard.

Members of the team in India now hold training sessions for local people and businesses, and have been able to connect slum-dwellers to bank officials. ‘Now residents can have a bank account, IndiaPost will deliver mail to them, they can get a photo card and they can get India’s Aadhaar ID card,’ Mason says. Whereas post used to be delivered to communal tables outside the slums, he says mail can now get to the people it belongs to, while having ID widens access to social welfare entitlements, utility supplies, schools and healthcare.

A formal addressing system is also crucial for surveying communities and keeping track of medical records. ‘One thing that’s exciting us a lot is that we can actually track immunisation,’ says Mason. ‘So we’re saying: in this particular property there are two children under the age of five. They’re meant to have four injections; they’ve only had two – so we need to come back to that address.’

And, as Malani adds, an address is necessary for exercising basic democratic rights. ‘One of the hidden benefits of an addressing system is that it’s important for people to have voter cards,’ he says. ‘If you don’t have a voter card that’s local, then no politician will want to give you something in return for your vote.’

With current estimates suggesting that within 35 years, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas – as many as one in two living in ‘unplanned settlements’ – the charity doesn’t anticipate its work coming to an end any time soon. Next year, it plans on setting up an exemplar centre in Kolkata where the process can be passed on to other interested parties – the relevant software and processes will be available for download at no charge.

what3wordsWhat3Words sets up its mobile address-printing service in South Africa


Given the scale of the problem it is perhaps a good thing that Addressing the Unaddressed isn’t the only group operating in this space. Though not a charity itself, geolocation start-up What3Words has also been offering its location identification system to organisations working in slums. Its system differs from that used by Addressing the Unaddressed in several ways. Simply put, the company uses an algorithm to divide the entire globe into a grid of 3m by 3m squares. Each square is then given a unique three-word identifier (this article is being written from every.stop.mental, for example).

Since its launch in 2013, the company has seen huge growth, largely driven by interest from logistics and delivery companies, as well as ride-hailing services and car manufacturers (the system is now being built into all Mercedes vehicles to work with voice recognition navigation software) – but it also has clear uses in places lacking a formal address system.

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What3Words CMO, Giles Rhys Jones, explains that because the app is free to use it offers a cheap, easy way for slum dwellers to claim a three-word address. This, he says is one of the system’s key advantages. ‘What we’re seeing in other parts of the world is that people are using What3Words because it’s already built and it’s fixed. You don’t need to generate anything, you just need to find it,’ he says.

In fact, both systems have their advantages, and potential disadvantages. Whereas Addressing the Unaddressed ensures that each alphanumeric code progresses through a lane or street with only small alterations between each one – not dissimilar from the rising numbers of an ordinary street – every square of the What3Words system is very different (a conscious decision to make navigation mistakes less likely). The latter approach works well for a courier, rescue worker or ambulance driver with a sat-nav, who wants an exact location, but it may be less useful for a postman on foot trying to navigate intricate slum lanes.

Despite the differences, both systems produce a similar effect – providing people with an identity. Rhys Jones explains that What3Words has already been used in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in Uganda and in areas of South Africa, allowing residents to access services previously out of reach. ‘In Uganda, the medical centre, delivery companies and the local authorities will now recognise us,’ he says.

In South Africa, the company works in a township in Durban in conjunction with a charity called Gateway Health. ‘They [Gateway Health] set up a big stall in the central square with an iPad,’ says Rhys Jones. ‘People came, found their address, pressed print, and we had a 3D router which printed out the address which they went and put on their front doors. Then we trained all the ambulance services to understand What3Words and how to use our app.’ He adds that this has helped ambulances reach women giving birth in an area where large numbers die in childbirth.

Ultimately, the more institutions that are wiling to recognise these systems, the more useful the new addresses will become. As of yet, three words don’t provide all the benefits afforded to citizens with traditional addresses, but Rhys Jones says that the company’s vision for the future is one in which ‘we get legal recognition from a government so that births, death, marriages, tax, your ability to vote – you can get all of that with a three-word address.’

Established in 1874, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) is the primary forum for cooperation between postal sectors across the 192 UN member countries. As part of its work the group is keen to see addressing systems implemented more widely.

   ‘With the availability of geographic data, high-resolution satellite images, and remote sensing, we can develop in a very precise manner the algorithm that can put a name or a number to a street, hopefully within national and international conventions,’ says UPU Addressing Specialist Patricia Vivas.

   But the UPU is wary that the proliferation of too many new systems could cause more trouble than they’re worth. ‘In a country such as India, you can find several companies posting different grid-based codes in local areas, while competent authorities have not been informed or associated,’ says Vivas. ‘The challenge is that we end up having three or four different systems at the same place, which, instead of helping to identify places, creates misinformation and confusion.’

   To avoid this, the UPU has published a set of basic principles and recommendations for the use of code-based systems. ‘The issue is that these systems are made both by and for machines, so it is difficult for people to understand and use them,’ says Vivas. ‘It is essential that governments take a coordinated approach concerning the adoption of codes at a local or national level.’


Despite the power of an address, it’s still only part of the answer to improving life in slums. An address could be thought of as stage one, but while it might make a dwelling identifiable, it doesn’t make it accessible. The work of groups such as Addressing the Unaddressed therefore feeds into a wider body of work being carried out to formalise slums and informal settlements.

Christa Brelsford, now a fellow in the human dynamics group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, explains that where there are no addresses in a community, there is often also a lack of formal layout, which adds further complications. ‘One of the core challenges is that people in a lot of slums and informal settlements don’t have addresses and there’s not space for access,’ says Brelsford. ‘So you could have an address, but not have a route to your house. You cannot have a toilet in your house if you don’t have space to lay sewer pipes, and you can’t lay sewer pipes without roads.’

In a recent study, in collaboration with Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Brelsford and her fellow researchers developed a mathematic system with which to identify the most logical way to rearrange a slum in order to provide access space. ‘Our hope is that by making the maths part easy, it will give people who live in these neighbourhoods more tools to address the social part.’ The system is currently being trialled by SDI in South Africa to help local people make decisions about their space.

The good thing is that these two strands of research and development – addressing and rearranging – can feed into each other. In order to create her mathematical equations, Brelsford is dependent on high-quality maps of urban slums, something that is easier to acquire if the space has already been assessed and addressed. Indeed, one of Addressing the Unaddressed’s recent successes was to get the lanes of some slums in Kolkata to appear on Google Maps – something that could prove useful for future formalisation.

what3wordsWhat3Words let residents of Durban 3D print their own address labels


There is another argument entirely – one that says these informal cities should be destroyed and the people relocated. As urban populations increase, some governments are ramping up efforts to simply demolish slums – a common practice in some parts of India, particularly Mumbai. In older slums, residents might receive compensation or be eligible for resettlement, but the newer the slum the more vulnerable its residents. Either way, many researchers in the field don’t see demolition as a viable answer.

‘It doesn’t really solve the problem, because if they demolish without a good development project to replace it, the slum dwellers just come back,’ says Malani. It would be better, he argues, to improve slums and to allow their people to play a full role in society. ‘There’s a remarkable amount of progress that occurs in slums,’ he adds. ‘These people are capable of growing even under bad circumstances. Imagine if you could eliminate the hurdles to their growth.’

Brelsford agrees: ‘In many parts of the world, the way to handle slums is to just raise them and kick all the people out,’ she says. ‘That destroys both the value embedded in the property, and the community. People are often resettled from a central city location to a faraway location out of the city which makes it hard to get to work and access the urban environment.’

The answer, she says, is a different approach – one with addressing at its core. ‘I think it’s worth reiterating that developing maps and beginning the process of formalising these informal neighbourhoods allows people to develop in their own locations, which already suit them. Addresses and formal services are one of the most important ways to let everybody have access to the city.’

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