This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by Reasons to be Cheerful.
Every time college student Aniket Samudra has to fill out a form, the address section stumps him. House number, street name, the name of his building — none of these things apply to him.
Which isn’t to say that Samudra doesn’t have a house. He lives in Laxmi Nagar, a slum in the western Indian city of Pune, in a cramped one-room home with tin-sheet walls — and no address.
Tens of millions of India’s slum dwellers share this problem, residing in tiny, poorly marked dwellings that have no unique street address of their own. Sometimes an entire slum, with thousands of residents, will share a single address.
In a world that often assumes that anyone’s house can be located, this creates all sorts of problems. Packages and mail don’t arrive at the doorstep. Firefighters struggle to locate blazes. Even the simple act of inviting someone to your home can involve a seemingly endless description of trees, shops and temples at which to turn left or right.
But the bureaucratic consequences are often even more damaging. Not having a unique address makes it difficult to get a government ID, along with all the public benefits that bestows. A lack of address can keep bank accounts, voting rights, even internet access out of reach.
Though billions of people have no official address, the world’s systems are set up as though everyone does.
So recently, when a blue plate with numbers and letters emblazoned on it was affixed to Samudra’s front door, its modest appearance belied the impact it would have on his life.
The sequence on the plate, FRR5+XV7M, is called a Plus Code. Developed by Google, these codes act as unique addresses, much like a house number. Enter it into Google Maps and you can find your way right to Samudra’s door.
Plus Codes are derived from the latitude and longitude of a location, and are open-source. “This system is based on dividing the geographical surface of the Earth into tiny ‘tiled areas,’ attributing a unique code to each of them,” according to Google.
Devising an accurate and navigable addressing system for places where traditional addresses don’t work has long been a challenge — and not just in lower-income countries or slums. Qatar is largely without street names or postal addresses. So is Accra, the capital of Ghana, a city of two million people. Most rural residents of West Virginia didn’t have addresses until 1991.
In India’s densely packed city of Kolkata, the nonprofit Addressing the Unaddressed has been confronting this challenge since 2012, long before Plus Codes came along. Co-founder Alex Pigot says they originally used a system he developed called Go Codes, which were similar in concept to Plus Codes. In 2018, they switched to Plus Codes and expanded their team with Google’s support.
“Instead of 10,000 houses we were doing every year, we did 150,000 between June 2018 and the end of 2019,” says Pigot. He estimates that out of the 300,000 slum dwellings in Kolkata, they’ve addressed around 200,000.
In Samudra’s slum, addressing began in 2019 by Pune-based NGO Shelter Associates, which has also addressed slums in three other cities in western India. According to Smita Kale, a mapping and data expert at Shelter Associates, the first step is figuring out where addresses don’t exist, which they do by identifying slum pockets using Google Earth.
After verifying their information with the local government, the fieldwork begins. Manual maps are drawn denoting homes, drainage networks, manhole chambers, community toilets and other landmarks. Then the map is digitized and each household’s Plus Code is generated by Google’s algorithm. Finally, rectangular blue plates displaying the code are stuck on doors throughout the slum.
Once they’ve given the homes addresses, Shelter Associates surveys the residents within on topics like sanitation and vaccination. In Kolkata, Pigot’s organization also conducts a survey after the addressing process is complete.
“[We] identify the people who are missing something — a birth certificate, voter card, bank account — because what we’re trying to do is give people a better identity.” He estimates that about five percent of slum dwellers have no proof of identity whatsoever.
“Those people have fallen through the cracks and are completely invisible and find it very difficult to identify themselves.”
Addressing the Unaddressed helps people open bank accounts and apply for voter ID and ration cards using their Plus Codes. They also train postal carriers in how to use the codes to deliver mail.
Pigot says having a unique addressing system is especially critical in an era of climate change, when disasters are more frequent and more intense. “If there is a disaster you know how many people are involved in order to either save them, compensate them or relocate them.”
Sana Shakil Sheikh says she felt a wave of joy when she first saw the dotted blue line on Google Maps showing the way to her home up a small slope in Laxmi Nagar. “Now we don’t have to give detailed instructions to relatives when they visit us,” she says.
The Plus Code also makes it easier for others to find her family’s small home-based trinket shop. Her friend and neighbor Priyanka Salunkhe says the first thing she did after her two-floor shack got a Plus Code was order a shirt for her brother. To her amazement, it was delivered directly to her door.
Getting communities to use Plus Codes has been easy, says Pratima Joshi, executive director at Shelter Associates. Convincing the government to use them, however, is another matter.
About a third of India’s urban population resides in slums, yet the government doesn’t recognize slum settlements as legitimate housing, says housing rights activist Shubham Kothari. “It only accepts it as a dilapidated house or encroached space or illegal structure.” Until that perspective changes, authorities won’t care about providing addresses to slums, he says.
It is “a huge governance issue,” says Joshi. “It is important that these locational IDs get built into regular governance, and this is going to be a huge step for us to get them to accept it.”
The pandemic got them part of the way there — when authorities were scrambling to monitor patients in densely populated areas and designate containment zones, some of them came to realize the importance of locational IDs, says Joshi.
In the city of Kolhapur, where all of the city’s more than 16,000 slum households now have Plus Codes, integrating those codes into official government records has finally begun.
Prashant Pandat from the water department at Kolhapur Municipal Corporation told me his team is adding Plus Codes as a new field in their database. Pandat has been using the codes to analyze water access in Kolhapur’s slums.
“[The Plus Code system] helps us know who has legal water connections and who doesn’t,” he says, adding that the same can be done for electricity connections, and that almost every municipal department in the city can use Plus Codes.
“The property tax department will benefit. So will the department of licensing, to know what commercial activities are going on in the slum.” In the town of Pimpri-Chinchwad, not far from Pune, municipal authorities plan to utilize Plus Codes for solid waste management. “Whether that family is giving their garbage to the collection van, whether it is segregated, who is defaulter — for that purpose they want to use Plus Codes,” says Kale.
Doors in slums typically have several numbers written on them by hand because different municipal departments conduct their own surveys and have their own numbering systems. “That is not usable,” says Kale. “[Plus code] is uniform.”
Unlike some other addressing techniques, Plus Codes have a pattern, says Pigot. “If you move the pin along [the map] you see that [for nearby addresses] only the last one or two digits change. The rest remain the same.”
Another reason he decided to adopt Plus Codes is that they are developed by Google, a global company with enormous reach that can strive toward universal adoption of a single system, which is one of the biggest challenges in addressing.
In Laxmi Nagar, some initially suspected that the new address plates being affixed to their homes could lead to their eviction, a fear that reflects the fraught relationship between slum dwellers and authorities. This is why Kothari sees the challenge of addressing slums as more political than technical.
He believes that Plus Codes are “a very important technological innovation which has promising potential,” but only if they are “backed by appropriate political will.”
Without government sanction, authorities may choose to ignore Plus Codes altogether. “If the government is willing to take up a project with Google, I am more than happy,” says Kothari.
Pigot says authorities need to recognize slum dwellers as vital to urban society. They are street sellers, delivery people, house cleaners and construction workers. If the whole service community is driven out of a city, only the middle class will be left, and soon they will be gone, too, leaving behind a derelict city, he says.
Last year, the country’s postal department consulted Pigot for their Digital Address Code project in which each address in India would be assigned a unique code based on its geospatial coordinates. He’s been approached by people in Bangladesh and Brazil, and organizations like Slum Dwellers International and the United Nations Habitat have shown interest. “There’s a sort of wave of support building to get people addresses,” he says.