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Implementation & Adoption of Street Addressing in The Gambia

WHY STREET ADDRESSING MATTERS

Economists like to define the conditions under which free markets can operate. And these usually include things like sound currency and may even say an effective enforced clear legal system to enforce contracts and legal certainty. But underlying this, which is often overlooked in the textbooks, there’s a vast range of social and physical infrastructure which are essential for the provision of basic services such as water and electricity.

One of these is postal services — part of the communications system is physical delivery, i.e. addressing. This is often ignored in economics books, but it is absolutely essential. Its taken for granted, for it seems to be so obvious. However, one of the things underlying a communications system is an addressing system for, what has been up to now, physical locations.

Ergo, it is a typical example of standards — in a sense, standards are usually ignored if they work well. And people, especially in developed economies, really don’t concern themselves much with things like addressing systems which generally work fairly reliable and are cheap. Now, the interesting thing is with the advent of new technologies, there’s a whole realm of possibilities — in the same way that mobile phones have opened up the possibility of personal communications — new technologies have opened up the possibility of new types of addressing systems.

For instance, before mobile phones existed, when you telephoned somebody — you didn’t actually telephone them, you telephoned their desk or their home, etc. Mobile phones changed all of this, whereby today you could actually telephone a person. Nowadays, with physical location, you deliver to a place not to a person. But, perhaps there are possibilities in the future for ‘location’ in different ways. Street addressing systems could be revolutionized in the future, therefore this dissertation is investigating factors that could influence the choice of street addressing systems in the smiling coast of Africa, The Gambia. This research setting choice is a result of recent changes in the country, including, a new democratic elected government in 2017, and the numerous reforms in the working, including decentralization of the local governments.

Synonymous to how the post office contributed to America’s unparalleled communications system, which brought the latest national and foreign news even to the Michigan outback during the 19th century, street addressing is necessary, as a central nervous system, for the physical as well as political and economic development of The Gambia. It is necessary, for we are living in a world that is rapidly urbanizing. In fact, the numbers have increased drastically over the last few decades and the trend seems to be perpetually increasing.

Indeed, mother earth is ready to accommodate over 6 billion urban residents by 2045. Ergo, managing cities is becoming extremely complex and extremely crucial. Street addressing is tool number one in the toolkit for city managers. It provides an opportunity for city managers and public and private operators to map their cities (more on mapping and addressing in chapter 2) and construct baseline information and to have a management tool that help them deliver services within their city boundaries. It also has many implications as you would see throughout this research.

BUT, WHAT EXACTLY IS STREET ADDRESSING?

The most prolific up to date literature on street addressing by the World Bank, Street Addressing and the Management of Cities, defines street addressing as “an exercise that makes it possible to identify the location of a plot or dwelling on the ground, that is, to ‘assign an address’ using a system of maps and signs that give the numbers or names of streets and buildings.” However, the concept is not exclusive to just buildings, for other urban fixtures such as bus stops, street-lamps, fire hydrants, and other urban spaces are part of the addressing system within their respective locality.

And although it may not seem obvious, assigning a home address is a complex social issue. This is because an addressing system is very systemic in nature. In fact, street addressing is better described as a systems innovation. Its a new system of doing things that has a wide range of potential impact, and it involves a lot of different actors to come together as oppose to just a single actor. So, its systemic as a technology itself but also in the way it is used by the population as a whole. And such interconnected systems are usually inherently complex and multifaceted. They are very challenging because their context and detail matter, and there isn’t an ‘end’ or ‘solution’ to them. Ergo, the process of addressing them becomes significant. For instance, an individual’s civic identity, i.e. home address, is as relevant as their demographic traits, i.e. height. In fact, nowadays one’s home address is an innate part of their day to day life — found on social security cards and all sorts of other personal identification documents, etc.

Its worth noting however, street addressing is much more than mere street identification. It is the cornerstone for (a) setting up a database on the built city environment, an invaluable source of urban information which is often unavailable, (b) creating a map of the city to be used by city managers or local municipalities, and c) conducting surveys to collect large sums of demographic data, i.e. mortality rate. With this basis, data collected is associated with the address of citizens, therefore easily locatable. The database, i.e. in the form of Geographical Information System (GIS), is the major innovation of addressing initiatives, especially in rapidly urbanizing cities. This is because most municipalities in such cities can’t keep up with the rapid urbanization process. Ergo, the benefit of a street addressing system lies in the potential of the urban information database, which, if concurrently developed with a street addressing plan, can be used for various applications (i.e. tax systems and waste collection) and benefit the local governments, private sector, and the entire population at large.

MY REASONS FOR CONDUCTING THIS RESEARCH

One summer’s morning in the year 2017, while reading the autobiography of Nikola Tesla, the ideal business venture I want to pursue began to dawn on me. Tesla says, “instinct is something which transcends knowledge. We have, undoubtedly, certain finer fibers that enable us to perceive truths when logical deduction, or any other willful effort of the brain, is futile.”7 Indeed, this resonated with me. I’ve always thought building a large-scale electronic commerce company such as Amazon in The Gambia was inviable. This is due to the lack of the necessary infrastructure, i.e., home addressing, in this small West African country. Using a first principles approach, so then I thought, perhaps I can build one using the What3words API, a geocoding system which divided the world into a grid of 3m by 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3-word address. But then I realized that the problem at-hand remains — there isn’t any national address database for the entire country.

I want to help create a structural solution, and that is why I am conducting this research.

I am conducting this research for the traditional virtues. I want to better understand what street addressing is, what it can do, and what it takes for local governments to successfully implement it, and most importantly, citizens’ willingness to accept and adopt the technology. Inspired by the spirit of entrepreneurship, I want to build a traffic/street sign-making company and ultimately help create a national address database for the entire Gambia. This research also aims to input into innovation policy, and to contribute more broadly to understanding systemic innovation from the perspective of a street addressing technology.

Since 1965, the Gambian government, particularly at the local level, has had difficulty in building strong national systems — indeed, the nation’s 22-year dictatorship rule had often helped deteriorate them — but economic crises and budget driven policy decisions have also gradually, almost imperceptibly, erased the government’s commitment to social and physical infrastructure initiatives such as street addressing. The people and their elected representatives, who must soon decide on a street addressing system (or face ordeal urban mismanagement issues), are willing to embrace the technology. Indeed, the mayor of Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC), Talib Bensouda, is committed to implementing an addressing system within his municipality; however, the necessary funding from the federal government is yet to be determined.

Mayor Bensouda of KMC & I at the Kanifing Municipal Council Office, 2018.

Most of the scholarly literature on urban development in The Gambia focuses on land management, and there has been very little study of the importance of street addressing. It is time for Gambians to learn more, particularly about the potential and benefits of street addressing, which this dissertation bases on modest primary research, including interviews with World Bank urban specialist and street addressing experts, as well as surveys of citizens, and local government officials.

Most economic development initiatives of The Gambia focus on political, and socioeconomic matters, but The Implementation and Adoption of Street Addressing in The Gambia tells the nation’s development potential from the perspective of its communications network. Upholding the pertinence of street addressing to our economic progress is important — both for this misunderstood, under-appreciated technology and for the insights into the country’s current affairs that it would benefit. After all, recurring themes in addressing applications, including the connection between street addressing and civic identity, tax systems, support for municipal services and concessionary services, household waste collection, and the inventory management of municipal built assets echo through the makings of street addressing to this day. Street addressing deserves the effort to envision, because just as other social and physical infrastructures, it is necessary for suitable economic conditions.

Full research report to be available soon.

Investor, Graduate student @ Manchester Business School, learning to code in JavaScript & Python. Site: www.msawo.com