Social enterprise Addressing the Unaddressed is improving the lives of people living in Kolkata’s slums via the simple step of assigning each home a unique postal address based on its geolocation.
Brendon Hooper, Journalist
27 March 2019
Imagine having no fixed address. Undoubtedly, you would not be able to partake in many of the day-to-day activities we so often take for granted.
Whether you're applying for a passport, accessing a bank account, or seeing a doctor, having an address means also having an identity as a citizen. However, for millions of people in informal housing around the world, no such identity exists.
"It's fascinating how an address becomes a sort of glue – in our developed societies we never think about it as being very important," explains Alex Pigot, co-founder of social enterprise non- profit Addressing the Unaddressed.
In 2012, after a long career in the postal industry, Pigot set up an initiative that aims to vastly improve the living conditions of people in urban slums and shanty towns, via the simple step of giving each dwelling a unique postal address based on its geolocation. The idea is that, once a resident has a formally recognised address, they will be empowered to build their own economic stability.
City administrations usually face a difficult choice when dealing with informal settlements. Should the houses be demolished and the people moved to the outskirts of urban areas, or left where they are? "Authorities struggle to find funding to move people from slums, so the latter can be a more attractive option," says Pigot. "However, these settlements can only work if the dwellers themselves are empowered to take care of their own lives and be given opportunities to improve their quality of life. This is where a unique postal address can be life-changing."
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In 2012, following a request from another non-profit, the Hope Kolkata Foundation, Pigot and his partner, Tina Roche, travelled to India to assist in providing rudimentary index postcodes to slum dwellings in the city, so that the organisation could identify the social impact it was achieving for the people living there.
"People living in Kolkata's slums are mostly ignored by the authorities,"Pigot continues. "Because they don't have an address, they cannot access local social services, utilities, bank accounts, pension cards or ID cards. But under our initiative, rather than trying to replicate a number and street name system, as with most formal addresses around the world, we give them a unique address code, which is the first step in being able to access such services."
Positioned above the door to a slum dwelling, the unique alphanumeric geocode looks similar to a car registration plate. Addressing the Unaddressed then liaises with the local post office, training staff to deliver mail to these locations.
Where possible, Pigot's team also helps the individual living in the slum to open a bank account and register to vote. Furthermore, NGOs working in Kolkata also use the team's list of address codes to obtain birth certificates for children born in slums. And identify and help families with health and education requirements.
"Looking at our list of unique codes and plotting them on a map, we realised we were at the same time mapping the capillaries of slum lanes running through Kolkata," says Pigot.
"So we got in touch with Google, which uploaded our data so that the slum lanes we had mapped were displayed on Google Maps. They also provided us with a more efficient coding technology. It has helped us rapidly increase the speed of creating addresses – previously we were generating codes for about 1,250 houses a month, but now we're covering 10,000 – around 300,000 people in total so far."
Incredibly, with Google's support, a team of just 24 staff is helping to change the lives of millions. By the end of this year, Addressing the Unaddressed hopes to have covered all of Kolkata's slums, giving representation to 1.4 million people.
But the team's technology has the potential to help many more of the world's "unaddressed" beyond those in developing countries. In the US state of North Dakota, for example, many Native Americans found themselves disenfranchised from voting in last November's midterm elections because of a law that requires voters to present an ID listing their address at the polls.
Addressing the Unaddressed therefore plans to make its Google-enabled tools available online by the end of 2019, so that any city in the world, or anyone who wants to make similar geolocated codes for communities, can download the guidelines and go out and do it. It's exciting that our system could be applied to help enfranchise people, anywhere in the world," says Pigot.