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Highlights from the 2015 UPU Addressing Conference

Date: December, 2015 --

Highlights from the 2015 UPU Addressing Conference

Programme at a glance Senior management of the Universal Postal Union, the UN agency which regulates international postal mail and parcel traffic, those things our clients mail and ship, were recently astonished. The response to their invitation to the addressing world soliciting attendance for a conference on addressing issues and technologies was beyond their imagination.  

It had been anticipated that “perhaps as many as 60 people” would come to the conference at the headquarters in Bern, Switzerland.  By the week before the opening of the event on October 26 over 200 people had registered to attend. And they came from around the globe, from governments, universities, posts, international government agencies, and critically, data processing and data hygiene companies like Data Services, Inc.

The conference was organized by the UPU resident addressing expert, Ms. Patricia Vivas, who counsels countries world-wide on how to develop address systems. She was assisted by a committee of address experts from Africa, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Europe. Addressing has now been recognized as a critical issue. 

Why is this important? For our clients who mail internationally, the link between themselves and their clients is the address, and it is a fragile link. It is easily corrupted by accidents and human error; numbers are reversed, names of addressees and streets and cities are misspelled, formatting is incorrect, and entire chunks of the address go missing. And of course, clients move, change jobs, or change their names. Our job here at Data Services, Inc. is to put all those inevitable errors right.  

At the conference, speakers revealed the many other roles played by the address well beyond that of a location designation.  There is in fact an arguably more important role, that of a personal identity element. In marketing we already use it as such when we differentiate files of two people with identical names. And of course it is used as a factor in most analytic target selection programs.

In the non-commercial world, the identification role of the address literally forms the foundation of one’s legal identity.   

An address is required for many things we take for granted: opening a bank account, buying an airplane ticket, licensing a car, going to university, getting a loan, even enrolling a child in school. Given this critical role, it is a major problem for the world that the address is not universally installed. Somewhere between two and four billion people do not have an address. Most of them are in countries where the posts move very little mail, since development is stunted and education not universal. How to give those people addresses was one of the major themes of the conference. 

One of the most moving presentations was by the Irish non-profit Addressing the Unaddressed which has so far self-funded the allocation of over 5,300 geo-code-based addresses in five separate unplanned settlements (i.e.slums) in Kolkata, India.  In India, as in most countries with these vast underserved communities, neither posts nor other government agencies intrude very much.

In short, the company is giving the residents the power to participate fully in the economic and political life of the country.  Thanks to the work of the organization, the post office is now delivering mail to the homes, banks have begun to open accounts for the “newly addressed”, and government aid programs can now be more easily accessed. 

A major factor in the success of the project to date is its cost. Using both paid and volunteer labor, and using sturdy blue and white plastic number signage, the cost of allocating an address, entering the name and address on an online protected database and manufacturing and installing the address sign on a home is  only $2. The cost to do the same thing according to “standard” practice in the US or Europe would be as much as $50.

 Addressing the Unaddressed is admittedly a non-profit organization highly dependent on volunteer help and donated management time, but it is a successful demonstration of the value of seeking alternative solutions to endemic problems. 

Finally, we learned that there is a lot of creativity out there regarding the address.  Three speakers presented their winning entries to the UPU’s “Addressing the Unaddressed” competition. Each entrant chose one of six different situations requiring addressing; these included a new residential area in a US high-plains town “enjoying” a population increase due to an oil boom, an entire  country with only walking paths, and a nation made up of three small  islands.  In short, the challenge was to invent a new way to create and capture addresses. 

Our favorite came from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. The challenge was to provide addresses to homes in a rural area which had no roads. The solution was to use a mobile phone.  Before the phone is taken to a location, it is loaded with data derived from a satellite picture of the location. The data are the numbers seen below. These are geocodes that were calculated and imposed on a satellite image of this area.  This information is then reduced and can be loaded on to mobile phones.  When the user turns in any direction, a number will appear affixed to each building which matches the number assigned to the picture of the area in the satellite image. These addresses can also be physically affixed to the buildings. 

Photo Credit: (Coetzee S and Rautenbach V (2015). Universal Postal Union Addressing Conference. Bern,  Switzerland, 26-27 October 2015)

This particular solution is extremely cost-efficient and could be executed by people without special training.  Add names to these numbers, and you have a mailing list at modest cost!  

Whether we shall soon see this form of address in files from South Africa, or other new forms from elsewhere, such as Kolkata, is to be seen. But what we saw at the conference suggests we will be seeing more and more unusual forms of addressing being instituted around the world.  When we do, rest assured that Data Services, Inc. will be prepared to maintain them appropriately for you.