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Why a Geocode Is Not an Address

On March 1, the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a new tranche of funding for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction, the second installment of the $20 billion in disaster recovery funding the federal government has committed to help the island recover from the damage of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Much of that money will be used to repair Puerto Rico’s physical infrastructure, which was ravaged after the storm. In the months after Maria, blue tarps on rooftops and dark streets at night became enduring images of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season and the inadequacy of the response.

But invisible amid these powerful images hides a seemingly boring little detail: Puerto Rico has an address problem.

Addresses may seem like mundane pieces of postal infrastructure—that is, until you don’t have one. According to the Puerto Rican government's recovery plan, the lack of 911-compliant addresses "makes it difficult for emergency responders to locate homes and businesses." In the wake of a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria, when emergency services can't reach someone, it can be a matter of life or death. During one of my recent visits to the island, FEMA officials grew visibly emotional, recalling how many people were lost because first responders couldn’t locate them. In the San Juan area alone, there are still thousands of individual FEMA aid applications that cannot be processed because the properties cannot be located. Beyond the current recovery efforts, reliable addresses are needed to support all kinds of government planning initiatives and the provision of social services.

The dysfunction of Puerto Rico’s addressing system has much to do with the island’s colonial history. Puerto Rico was claimed by Spain in 1493 and adopted Spanish addressing conventions. When the island was seized by the United States in 1898, its address system was abruptly grafted onto a nation with a foreign language and customs. The result is a mismatch between Spanish street naming conventions and mailing systems designed for the rest of the United States. For instance, Puerto Rican addresses often use “urbanization” and “barrio” divisions to distinguish between otherwise identical street addresses, and mainland US software frequently has no input field for these. Moreover, the Spanish language convention of using street name prefixes instead of suffixes can cause data to be read in the wrong fields. An ordinary Puerto Rican address can be written in dozens of different ways and they are often recorded differently in different databases.

As a result, the cost of rendering Puerto Rico’s addressing system compliant with mainland US standards has been estimated at up to $200 million.

In the midst of a rebuilding effort that is both sweeping in scope and bound by austerity, the cost of fixing the address system may seem extreme—particularly in light of the emergence of geocoding systems, which promise to solve addressing problems at scale.

Geocodes are what they sound like: unique codes that correspond to geographic coordinates. The currently best known geocoding system was devised by a company called What3Words, though Google, Mapcode, and others have competing systems with different features. What3Words has divided the entire planet into 57 trillion 3- by 3-meter squares, each with a unique three-word identifier. These "addresses" are permanent, easy to record and communicate, and translate into latitude and longitude when plugged into a GPS. The three words that identify a given square are chosen essentially at random from a word dictionary, and there is no relation between adjacent squares. For example, the address from which I am writing this article is voter.demand.part.

So should a place like Puerto Rico simply adopt What3Words as a fix for its broken address system?

From the perspective of a mail carrier, ecommerce vendor, or emergency responder navigating by GPS, What3Words may well succeed in its goal of providing a universal, ready-made addressing system. But from another perspective it doesn’t really provide any addresses at all.

Addresses are names; they have meaning and importance far beyond their administrative function. It is largely through place names that location intersects with issues of history and identity. They record far more than a location on the surface of the earth. It is a location within a cultural landscape which gives us coordinates in time as well as space. Relics of old languages and geographies, environmental patterns, demographics, wildlife.

Names, and the relationships between names, tell you about the people who chose them. What they aspired to, what religion they practiced, what language they spoke. They are hierarchical from country to city to street, and so on, which makes them good for navigation without a GPS. And these hierarchical subdivisions correspond to communities, like neighborhoods that may confer prestige or street cred to their inhabitants. Put differently, addresses encode our location into the civic infrastructure.

Conversely, by assigning utile but random combinations of letters or numbers, geocodes may enhance access to emergency services and ecommerce but mask socioeconomic information that is important to people’s identities.

Having an address means having a name in much the same way a person has a name. Using a geocode instead of an address is, in the case of What3Words, like swapping your first, middle, and last names for three names chosen at random—and, in fact, your name would be guaranteed to be as different as possible from the names of those closest to you, like your parents, spouse, and children.

In a sense, the choice between geocodes and addresses is ultimately a false one, because while their administrative functions overlap, addresses and geocodes are not the same kind of thing. So it is unsurprising that Puerto Ricans are resisting exclusively using a geocode addressing system, no matter what problems it can solve from a technical perspective. That resistance is rightly bound up with the island’s historical fight for self-determination and the struggle to preserve the island’s unique cultural and linguistic heritage.

In some places this is not a major concern. The postal service in Mongolia—where one-quarter of the population is still nomadic, population densities are extremely low, and street names are rare—adopted What3Words as its formal addressing system. And in countries without any serious addressing infrastructure, geocodes are an attractive option for getting important services off the ground. But in a US territory fighting for equal recognition, equal rights, and perhaps statehood, addressing cannot end with geocodes.

WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com

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