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Why location data quality matters more than ever


Paul Malyon 5 minute read Data quality, Data cleansing

In this digital age you could be forgiven for thinking that postal addresses are soon to be a thing of the past, replaced by digital communications that are accessible to us 24/7. Having worked at Experian Data Quality for a number of years I can confidently tell you that’s certainly not the case. In fact having recently met with what3words, pioneers of an innovative new universal addressing system, I’m even more convinced than ever.

The postal address is here to stay

In the UK whilst email and mobile are growing channels, postal addresses aren’t becoming obsolete. One of the key drivers behind this is the rise in e-commerce. More online shopping means more deliveries which retailers can’t risk getting wrong as a result of having inaccurate data. Addresses also play a really key role in identifying customers and linking records together, especially when you consider that these days most of us have more than one email address. We’re lucky in the UK to have one of the most up to date and accurate sources of address data in the form of Royal Mail PAF, which enables us to pinpoint fixed addresses.

Tackling the global challenge

Considering this on a global scale it quickly becomes clear that not every country is as fortunate as the UK. Our validation tools also support international data and over the years I’ve experienced the massive variation in quality and formats that can exist, which means that not every country has a system that is as reliable as those typically found in North America and Europe. Meeting what3words added a whole new dimension to the issue of accurately pinpointing a location – what about those locations across the globe that don’t have an address - how do you go about finding them?

They told me that around 75% of the countries in the world (that's 4 billion people) suffer from inconsistent, complicated or inadequate addressing systems. That can be a huge problem because people in those cities and countries essentially become invisible - without any way of communicating where they live it’s impossible to report crime, get deliveries, vote in an election or receive life-saving aid.

Even in the developed world there’s a need for some way of pinpointing a location that doesn’t have a fixed address. Chris Sheldrick, co-founder of what3words, created his company because, having worked in the music business for 10 years, booking bands and managing production for events around the globe, he was constantly frustrated with suppliers not being able to find site entrances, and bands not finding their way from the hotel to their gigs. 

A simple solution to a complex issue

So what’s the answer? Geocodes? Yes… but not in the way you may be thinking of. what3words came up with the innovative idea to create a system that would sit alongside traditional addressing tools.  The problem they found was that whilst accurate, geocodes are long, complicated and difficult to remember, never mind communicate. They have created a universal addressing system that tackles this problem in a very simple way. Each of the 57 trillion 3mx3m squares in the world has been pre-allocated a fixed and unique 3 word address. Its geocoder turns geographic coordinates into these 3 word addresses and vice-versa.

That means that in just 3 words I can pinpoint a 3x3m square point in the Sahara desert (impresses.forgave.wiggled) just as easily as I can find an equivalent spot in the middle of Clapham Common here in London (frog.surely.vest) – it’s as simple as that. Check out the map on their website to find out where you live.

What particularly struck me about what what3words does isn’t just the innovation, but the fact that it solves a very real problem where location accuracy is critical. Let’s take emphasis.paramedic.cackling as an example – imagine being stuck here in South Sudan near the B38 road. You need an ambulance but you don’t have an address to help the medics get to you. You’re somewhere between Gogrial and Marial Bai but that’s not going to be enough. With what3words, an ambulance crew could find you quickly and offer aid.

Back in frog.surely.vest, the issues may not be lifesaving. However, even in places where there is a good quality address file, there is still room for innovation. Imagine taking a short walk on to Clapham Common and sitting down for a picnic at proof.rugs.cage. Shortly after spreading out your picnic blanket, a delivery driver (or perhaps even a drone) drops off your gourmet sandwiches and a bottle of pop. This is simply not possible using existing solutions and would elevate the customer experience on offer to another level for that retailer. This could easily sit alongside the service that delivers your weekly grocery order to your home.

It’s exciting that in today’s market there are solutions like this that sit very nicely alongside the traditional address quality tools that we offer, so that organisations ultimately have the ability to choose the best combination of data and tools to meet their requirements and be as efficient as possible.