Ideas

How street addresses could help us fight Ebola

A huge chunk of the world is missing something crucially important

A home in Kolkata with a newly minted address over the door.
A home in Kolkata with a newly minted address over the door.

In Liberia, finding the Ebola virus is all too easy; it’s already claimed over a thousand lives and is likely to kill many more. But finding and keeping track of particular victims in this West African nation of 4 million, or even of the brave men and women who’ve come to their aid, is proving an unexpected quandary.

If Ebola ever afflicted Boston, physicians would deploy a powerful weapon against it—a street map. They’d pin down the address of each victim, hunt down the source of the infection, and draw up a plan to halt its further spread. It’s a simple, powerful tool of public health. But it only works when the victims have street addresses. And in Liberia, hardly anybody does.

In America, virtually every building has an address—about 153 million of them for our homes, businesses, and government offices. But millions of people in the developing world live in residential areas that have never been thoroughly mapped, and where street addresses have never been issued.

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They’re called the “unaddressed,” and nobody’s sure how many of them there are. Some live in isolated villages and farms, but many more are crowding into urban areas. As of 2014, most of the human race now lives in cities—the first time that’s ever happened. And according to the World Bank, about a third of these city dwellers—over a billion people—reside in urban shantytowns, recently erected and never properly surveyed. These people are often invisible to governments, businesses, and aid workers, because without addresses, finding them can be almost impossible.

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Now this is beginning to change. Technology innovators armed with Google Maps and GPS navigation gear are devising cheap and simple ways to assign an address to every location on the planet. In countries such as Liberia and India, nonprofits have sprung up driven by people passionate about putting whole villages and neighborhoods on the map.

If there’s a certain old-fashioned allure to the idea of living without an official designation on the grid—as all people did until quite recently—there are undeniably real and life-changing benefits to giving everybody an address. With an address, any man or woman can get a driver’s license, open a bank account, register to vote. Businesses can offer home delivery. Governments can collect accurate census data and keep track of taxpayers. And, as the Ebola outbreak shows so clearly, public health workers can trace the spread of contagious diseases quickly enough to save lives—perhaps by the thousands.

The familiar systemof house numbers and street names was developed in 18th-century Europe, and in the centuries since has been adopted in every part of the developed world. When the European colonial powers applied their addressing concepts to their overseas possessions, however, it was rarely with the same degree of diligence. And in post-colonial times, new nations within Asia and Africa often neglected the mundane task of accurate street addressing. “I think it is a question of priorities,” said Patricia Vivas, an addressing specialist at the Universal Postal Union in Berne, Switzerland. “In developing countries they had other worries.”

But in nations like Liberia, government leaders have come to realize the critical importance of addressing. They’ve found an ally in Michael Olsen, a Utah land developer who’s got a plan to put millions of people on the map, in Liberia and around the world. Olsen’s nonprofit organization, Addressing Homes LLC, has developed a universal standard for generating addresses, based on a building’s latitude and longitude.

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At first, the project had nothing to do with Liberia. In 2007 Olsen earned a patent on software that can match an aerial photograph of a piece of land with information recorded in the land title. A land developer could use the software and a Google Map to get a clear picture of his property.

At about the same time, a mutual friend introduced Olsen to the vice president of Liberia, Joseph Boakai, who was in the United States to attend meetings at the United Nations. That two-hour meeting led to a two-week visit to Liberia, and a meeting with the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Long before the Ebola outbreak, Sirleaf realized that Liberia was in desperate need of proper street maps, not just for the capital, Monrovia, but the entire country. During the brutal civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003, the government’s land records had been lost. And in any case, the country had never had a proper system of street addresses. Could Olsen use his mapping software to help put things right? “I said I don’t know, I never thought about it,” Olsen said.

Once he started thinking, it took him four years to devise an answer. Olsen’s system assigns zip codes, like those used in America, to 132-square-mile chunks of territory; Liberia will contain about 325 of these coded zones. Each building in a zone will get a numerical address based on latitude and longitude. A building in the capital, Monrovia, might be located at street address 7545 N 4995 W, in zip code 062-107. If the street already has a common name—Tubman Street, for instance—it can be added to the address to make it more memorable.

Mappers can use satellite images from Google to pinpoint many locations. “I could address about 95 to 98 percent of it from a computer, looking at rooftops,” Olsen said. But some areas not visible from space will require the direct approach. Olsen has developed an $8,000 GPS receiver that’s accurate to within 6 feet, making it far more precise than the GPS unit in your cellphone. Each device contains a camera to shoot a photo of the newly addressed building, and a satellite radio to transmit the data to a central office.

Using aerial images, Olsen has already mapped his first zip code zone, and has begun generating addresses for each building in it. Olsen estimates that it will cost $12.8 million to address every building in Liberia, a cost that averages out to about $4.20 per building. The entire job will take years, but the Ebola outbreak has added new urgency to the task. Olsen hopes to quickly generate maps showing the exact addresses of infected victims, to help aid workers track the spread of the disease. He also wants to map the new Ebola clinics so that citizens can easily find them.

In India, a nation where untold numbers of people have never had a home address, an Irish nonprofit is attempting something similar. The system is the brainchild of Alex Pigot, owner of a direct-mail advertising business, who grew frustrated with the Irish postal service. While Ireland has street addresses, the country lacks a postcode system, like America’s zip codes. When the government launched a competition to build a postcode system, Pigot offered an entire addressing system based on GPS coordinates.

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The Irish government chose a different standard, which is set for launch next year. But Pigot was contacted by the Hope Foundation, a charitable organization working in the slums of Kolkata, India, with a proposal to use his system to assign home addresses to the residents of a shantytown in the city’s Chetla neighborhood.

The well-established homes and offices of Kolkata already have proper addresses. But much of the housing in Chetla was rapidly thrown together on unused land to provide cheap housing to thousands of newcomers. “The slum we’re working with is actually a piece of land that’s trapped between a river and a railway track,” Pigot said. “These are dwellings made out of sticks and plastic, paper, cardboard, and bits of wood.” The city never authorized construction there, and its shabby houses have never been properly mapped. The area’s 250,000 residents live without bank accounts or ID cards or reliable access to mail, all because they live without addresses.

Pigot launched a nonprofit project, Addressing the Unaddressed, to solve the problem. A team of volunteers equipped with GPS units walked the streets of Chetla, recording the coordinates of every building, and his software processed the results into addresses. As in Liberia, the results bear little resemblance to American-style street addresses—for instance, one house is located at NM4C NP5Y. But that’s good enough to put these houses on the map, and integrate their residents into the life of the city.

As of July, Pigot’s project had addressed about 2,300 homes housing 15,000 people, and the early results hint at just how many ways having an address can be useful. According to the Hope Foundation, more than 250 people have obtained bank accounts, and 79 have registered to vote. And since the postal service can now find these newly addressed people, they’re getting mail delivered right to their doors.

In developing nations that have the resources to tackle it themselves, other addressing projects are rolling ahead. Costa Rica has spent 10 years introducing modern addresses; buildings are being mapped in Zambia and Tanzania as well. Plenty of work remains. But Olsen thinks that every location on earth could be addressed in as little as 15 years. “If you had the capital,” he said, “you could probably do it in a decade.”

Throughout history, humans have never stopped asking “where am I?” and “how do I get there?” We’ve spent millennia cobbling together tools to help answer those questions—compasses, star charts, gyroscopes, and GPS receivers. With those tools, people have spanned oceans and mapped continents.

But the most valuable location data is the most mundane—the street address printed on our monthly electric bills or scrawled onto cards at the holidays. A citizen with an address is plugged into banking networks and mail-order merchants, voting districts and tax assessments, and the public health services that may someday save his life. Just as important, an address confirms that a person has a rightful place in the neighborhood and the nation.

In June, Olsen demonstrated his system to Frederick Norkeh, Liberia’s minister of posts and telecommunications. He’s the nation’s postmaster, but he lived in a house with no address. “When we did his home address, he asked if we could print the aerial view of his home and screen shot from the computer. I asked why,” Olsen said. Norkeh’s answer? “I want to take it home and show my wife and family we have an address.”

Hiawatha Bray writes the Tech Lab column for the Globe. He can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.