Address the issue

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Data quality expert, Graham Rhind, discusses the importance of address data management in a world with more than 130 different street address formats

A street or postal address is an important component of a person’s mind map. Streets and buildings are (usually) named or numbered, and this information is often used in a person’s daily life. A person adopts their address and gives it an importance that is not always appreciated by the organizations that collect and use address data for various purposes.

Addresses are also heavily influenced by language and culture. In the over 240 countries and territories of the world more than 130 different street address formats have been adopted, and there are no indications that a universal system will be implemented any time soon. In one country a state name or code might be required, in another it isn’t. In one an address might require eight lines, in another only two. One might want a building number before the street name, another after. In yet another, street names are not used; instead, buildings and blocks are named.

In terms of delivery one could choose to fight against these differences, but this would be a losing battle. Embracing them and overcoming them through advances in technology is a better strategy.

When collecting and outputting address data it is important to know which components of an address need collecting (and which do not), and in what order, to comply with local cultural and postal norms. Systems requiring a postal code input, for example, will cause problems for the over 50 countries and territories that still do not use them. Using address validation systems, preferably in a dialogue with the owner of the address, enables organizations to collect data that is not only correct and accurate, but usable in the postal system.

Companies that collect address data in a haphazard way create problems for themselves and for the distribution companies they use. They often base data collection on their experience of one country’s address system so that, if they operate internationally, they fail to take into account the rich variety of systems in use around the world. As this data may be the core ofbusiness intelligence analyses and sales and marketing efforts, any flaws in it can cause massive problems for its owners.

Inconsistent and incorrect data reduces the efficiency of data actions, creates duplication, irritates customers and costs money. Injecting these poorly formatted, incomplete or non-existent addresses into the postal process creates extra work in the process chain, resulting in delivery delays, poor performance and extra costs. It can lead to loss of confidence in the company, loss of customers and, not uncommonly, company failure. It is no coincidence that delivery companies offer discounts for mail whose addresses conform to a specific layout, display a high level of accuracy and which have been pre-sorted to reduce the drag that poor addressing can have in the system.

A full understanding of (international) address issues is not only difficult to master, it also requires constant work to keep the information relevant. Countries come and go with surprising frequency; postal code systems are introduced, altered significantly or dropped in an average of four countries every year. Address management does not begin and end with data collection, but a constant monitoring of changing postal systems, on a national and local basis, is required to ensure that data remains accurate and fit for purpose.

Within the delivery process an address should need interpreting only once. Often after this initial recognition a machine-readable code, such as a barcode, “replaces” the address for the rest of the process. Attempts have been made to replace addresses with codes, but this swims not only against the human readability that addresses require, but also against the clear connection that street address systems have with a person’s local environment.

Organizations that work closely with their postal partners have achieved increased customer satisfaction and reduced costs. Ensuring that address data is accurate, well formatted and customer friendly is an essential part of this process.

Graham Rhind is an expert in the field of data quality. He runs his own consultancy company, GRC Database Information, based in Germany, where he researches postal code and addressing systems, collates international data, runs a busy postal link website and writes data management software.

July 16, 2015

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