An address is …


This week a headline in the Telegraph caught my eye:

Postcodes ‘no longer fit for purpose’ as study shows most people have one which does not go directly to their door

The article goes on:

Postcodes are “no longer fit for purpose” as three in four people in the UK have an address that does not lead directly to the door of their home or business, according to new research.

British technology company What3words has said that the current address system in the UK needs to change after it found that people are struggling more than ever to get their parcels delivered to the right location.

A survey carried out by the company showed that out of 1,000 people in the UK, 74 per cent said deliveries, services and visitors struggle to find their homes or businesses; equating to almost 46 million people nationally.

And now the revolutionary firm is hoping to stop the delivery nightmare with their global grid system.

First up I should congratulate the marketing and PR team at what3words for getting this piece published in a so called quality daily paper. Those of you who know me and have read some of my previous posts on location codes will know that this would be a red rag for me, and despite my best efforts I couldn’t resist the bait.

Bailar pegados

Let’s start by deconstructing the premise of this puff piece.

“three in four people in the UK have an address that does not lead directly to the door of their home or business”

Well that’s an enormous jump from a postcode to an address! This is either a deliberate attempt to mislead by conflating addresses with postcodes or it is just sloppy writing/editing or most probably a bit of both.

Assuming the wording should have been “three in four people have a postcode that does not lead directly to the door...” then it is stating the obvious as most postcodes refer to an average of 15 properties with a small number applying to individual commercial properties (or even a floor in a large multi-tenanted block). Coordinates are assigned to the “middle house” within a postcode group, this is better explained by EDINA (slightly out of date with reference to Address-Point)

Code Point is derived from Gridlink and provides a National Grid reference for each unit postcode in the United Kingdom to a resolution of 1 metre. Each Grid Reference point is known as the Code-Point Location Coordinate (CPLC).

To generate each CPLC, the mean position of each delivery point in a unit postcode is calculated and the CPLC is allocated the ADDRESS-POINT (an Ordnance Survey Gridlink product) coordinates which fall nearest to this mean.

Although each postcode is allocated a grid reference, the grid reference may be shared by more than one postcode. For example, if a block of flats ( a Vertical Street) contains more than one postcode, each postcode will be allocated with the same grid reference as its CPLC.

So on that basis only 7% of houses have a postcode that leads to their front door. But miracle of miracles (and it pains me to praise the Royal Mail) according to the BBC News 99.87% of mail is delivered correctly. So clearly the fact that postcodes do not identify individual front doors does not prevent the mail being successfully delivered.

“the current address system in the UK needs to change after it found that people are struggling more than ever to get their parcels delivered to the right location”

Really? That’s not my experience, why would the mail services be able to successfully deliver mail but not the parcel services? In the last 5 years we have had one parcel delivery which went astray and that turned up a week or so later. I would have thought that most large scale home delivery firms will be using a full address product such as Ordnance Survey’s AddressBase Premium which provides accurate coordinates for every address in GB (yes, I know, now I’ve praised RM and OS!).

“A survey carried out by the company showed that out of 1,000 people in the UK, 74 per cent said deliveries, services and visitors struggle to find their homes or businesses; equating to almost 46 million people nationally”

Now I really wonder what the author of the piece, or her editor, were thinking of (or smoking)? 46 million people have a struggle to be found! This is difficult to believe, to say the least (I had to rephrase the first and second drafts of this paragraph to remove the expletives). Surely one or two (or several more) of the people I know or you know would have mentioned their struggle to be found? Is there a conspiracy going on to keep this national scandal a secret? Why do we not know that 46m people are struggling to be found? Should we call in the emergency services to help them get found or is it time to mobilise the army?

Do they “struggle” every day, every week, once a month, once a year, once in the last 10 years? I have a ‘thing’ about headlines based on surveys where the questions asked and raw data are not available. These pseudo scientific surveys are often carried out on behalf of companies promoting the need for their products or services or by campaigners seeking to make a point by asking ‘loaded’ questions. Of course what3words could easily shut me up by providing the raw data behind their survey and if I have mischaracterised their survey I will happily write a grovelling retraction.

“And now the revolutionary firm is hoping to stop the delivery nightmare with their global grid system”

You’ve got to hand it to the what3words PR team, they have played a blinder. We have now escalated to a “delivery nightmare” 46 million people are waking up with cold sweats worrying whether their Amazon or ASOS delivery is go missing – I recommend cocoa before bed along with a subscription to Prime.

A thought – 3m squares may not be the answer to the delivery nightmare. About 17% of homes are flats which means that the from doors are both inside the main entry point and stacked vertically above each other which will still leave the poor delivery person struggling to find the front door from his 3 word code. That’s 1 in 6 or 10 million people still having sleepless nights because drivers are using 3 word codes instead of addresses.

Enough! A code is not an address



A location code (whether it is a postcode or based on 3 words or some other algorithm) is a proxy for coordinates it is not an address or even a proxy for an address (you might argue that a postcode is an aggregate of multiple addresses).

Addresses are an important component of our social, democratic, economic and digital infrastructure. I am grateful to my friends at GeoPlace for some useful quotes on why addresses matter

“Urban development, economic growth and the provision of basic services are inextricably linked to the existence of sound address infrastructures in urban and rural areas alike.”

Anna Tibaijuka, Tanzanian minister of lands, housing and human settlements development

Addresses are a component in establishing legal identity (which would suggest that they need to be allocated by a legal authority)

“Four billion people are excluded from the rule of law, as the lack of a legal identity often prevents them from enjoying their rights as citizens. Setting up an addressing system is the first step towards tackling that issue.”

Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, United Nations Development Programme

The UPU may have an axe to grind on this topic but once again they are suggesting that addresses need official authentication.

Addresses appear to be a key element in aiding the delivery of policies at national and international levels in support of the Millennium Development Goals particularly with regard to governance, rule of law, poverty reduction, disease prevention and the provision of basic services such as electricity, sanitation and water.

Addressing the World – an address for everyone. Universal Postal Union 2012

Let me be clear here, I am not anti what3words. If delivery firms think that licensing a 3 word code system as a proxy for coordinates will help them to deliver parcels then go for it. If their customers want to remember their 3 word code rather than their address because that will prevent their “nightmare struggle” to get deliveries then that’s wonderful, I’m all in favour of getting a better night’s sleep. And if Mercedes think that 3 words will help their owners’ in car navigation system, then good luck to them (personally I would focus on beefing up the voice recognition to enable it to detect street addresses, because there aren’t many Mercedes in places without an address system).

What infuriates me (understatement) is the knowing endeavour to conflate a location code, a proxy for coordinates with no other context or hierarchy, with an address when it clearly is considerably different. Oh and add in the use of a faux survey to assert that there is a “delivery nightmare” in the UK which they (and only they?) can solve.

An address is …

Let’s try to define what constitutes an address and why a 3 word code is not an address. Rob Walker, a past chair of the Association for Geographic Information, and something of a super nerd on addressing and address standards submitted a paper to the “ISO Workshop on address standards: Considering the issues related to an international address standard”  (2008) in which he suggested that (my italics and bold below)

An address is a label used to reference a geographical object such as a property, for the purpose of identification and location, through the use of identifiable real-world objects. Addresses are widely used in government, commerce and everyday life as descriptions of where places are, and people are often referenced by their home address. The most common form of address is the postal address, used for the delivery of mail, where the address is essentially a routing instruction leading to the property.

It’s those real world identifiable objects that give an address context and make it human readable.

Addresses are used for a range of purposes including

  • Delivery organisations, to identify delivery points;
  • Other service organisations, to identify the location of service delivery points;
  • People, to uniquely identify themselves via their place of residence;
  • Governments, to identify where people live and work, for planning public services;
  • Taxation authorities, to levy taxes on people and organisations;
  • Emergency services, for deployment and contingency planning;
  • Land authorities, for property registration and transactions;

Rob outlines a general structure for addresses

Addresses generally follow a simple structure incorporating the names or numbers of a nested set of spatial units:

  • The name or number of a sub-unit within a building or property;
  • The name or number of a building or property within a street;
  • The name of a street;
  • The name of (one or more) geographic areas (locality, town, county etc);
  • The name of a country.

Part of such an address is often abbreviated by a code (e.g. a postcode or area code).

The exact definition of each of these levels in an address usually varies from country to country, and are often defined in national standards. (e.g. BS 7666 in the UK).

17 West Street, Epsom, Surrey gives me an immediate idea of where Astun’s office is, even if I don’t know Epsom well I probably have an idea of where Epsom is in relation to where I live. Adding the postcode doesn’t help me with that context but it usually works with the maps app on my phone. On the other hand doing.random.manliness doesn’t even tell me that the address is in the UK but it did give me a laugh

If the Queen wanted a package delivered to her front door, she’d just have to reference ‘’.

I am sure there are lots of slightly risqué 3 word combinations that we can all search for but please let’s not kid ourselves that HRM is going on line and ordering her pizza to be delivered to her sleaze-word address. 

It’s probably time to get the tin hat out as the flack comes flying in 🙂


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