This NGO got Google Maps to register Kolkata slum lanes

Since April, Google Maps has been including the byways of Chetla, an informal settlement in Kolkata. (Courtesy Addressing the Unaddressed)

Until recently the narrow lanes that wind through Chetla, an informal settlement in Kolkata, did not register on Google Maps. But since April, those byways can be seen on the popular navigational tool as skinny white offshoots branching off from the surrounding streets.

The importance of this change goes well beyond the ease of smartphone-based navigation. It shows how a charity organization, Addressing the Unaddressed, is bringing increased visibility to slum dwellers in formal and online maps.

“What we’re trying to do is normalize slum lanes,” says Alex Pigot, chief executive of Addressing the Unaddressed, which has operations in Ireland and India. “Up until a few weeks back, you could walk to the slum entrance, but that’s as far as Google [Maps] would bring you. Now, by adding the slum lanes, Google would bring you down the slum lanes, as well.”

Adding the lanes to Google Maps is one part of Addressing the Unaddressed’s broader mission to give Kolkata’s slum dwellers something many living in formal housing take for granted: an address.

That’s an important element in development circles, since an address is considered part of a person’s identity, according to a 2012 white paper from the Universal Postal Union. As UN-Habitat’s Joan Clos has noted, “If you do not have an address you do not officially exist.” It’s estimated that as many as 4 billion people do not have such a legal identity, according to the white paper.

Since 2013, Addressing the Unaddressed has been using its GPS-based technology to give slum dwellers across Kolkata geo-coordinate-based addresses known as GO Codes, helping those who previously had no official postal addresses identify themselves and access services.

[See: With what3words, everyone on the planet finally has an address]

Completed in 2013, Chetla was the first settlement to receive the addresses, numbering more than 2,500. The organization has since expanded its work to supply addresses to over 20,000 homes in 13 of Kolkata’s informal settlements, according to Pigot, who is the founder of GO Code International, the company whose technology Addressing the Unaddressed uses.

The codes can be seen nailed to doorframes of homes in Chetla and elsewhere. Each is made up of nine letters and numbers in white lettering on a blue placard that looks similar to a car’s license plate.

Kolkata is a city where roughly 1.4 million people live in informal settlements, some 30 percent of the urban population.

Value of an address

For slum dwellers who previously didn’t have registered addresses, the codes mean they can now receive post directly to their homes.

“Slum dwellers have basic problems — like when any letter is coming from the postal department, they are basically dumping [it] in any community centre, or any other centre,” said Subhashis Nath, project manager at Addressing the Unaddressed. This mail can then be unattended. “After that, sometimes they find the letter, [or] sometimes it’s missing. Every time, they’re facing the problem regarding their proper address,” he said.

To help postal workers navigate the coded address system in the informal settlements, Addressing the Unaddressed has done training sessions with local postal workers, says Pigot. At the entrances to areas such as Chetla, they have placed hand-drawn maps of the slum lanes, marked with residences and their associated codes.

[See: Naming streets in urban slums part of a “street-based” upgrading approach]

But the importance of these addresses goes well beyond the postal system. With the codes recognized as an address, those living in these settlements have a range of options newly available. They can open bank accounts, for instance. They also can apply for and receive biometric government identification cards, which in turn are linked to social benefits, voting cards and ration cards allowing the purchase of food at subsidized prices.

Addressing the Unaddressed plugs the names and addresses of people over 18 years old in the homes that receive the coded addresses, along with the mobile number for the head of the household, into an online database.

Addressing the Unaddressed workers describe their project in a Kolkata informal settlement. (Addressing the Unaddressed)

This database is used by a local NGO, the Hope Kolkata Foundation, for planning and reporting. It allows organizations such as banks, which can access the database with a username and password, to identify and verify new customers.

Furthermore, Addressing the Unaddressed supplies local councillors with data for addressed homes in their particular wards.

“When we go into any new area, we always try to collaborate with the local councillor,” said Nath. “Because [if] the slum dwellers and residents need anything, they are firstly going to the local councillor.”

[See: Can geospatial technology lead to a development ‘data revolution’?]

Therefore, before starting the work to provide coded addresses in a new area, Addressing the Unaddressed will meet with local councillors to inform them. Then they meet with community leaders, organizing a public meeting to explain more about the addressing process.

Tracking development

In a bid to keep tabs on whether life in Kolkata’s slums is improving, Addressing the Unaddressed also is collecting information about residents.

Through basic surveys, the group is looking at some of the indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals, assessing issues such as access to health care, water and sanitation. They also look at air quality and whether residents are accessing social benefits — ration cards, old age and widow pensions, or state benefits for people with disabilities.

[See: Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function]

Team members recently started mapping, and giving the location codes to, amenities such as water supply points and toilets to better understand service provision, and gaps, in areas being coded.

“The idea of those indicators is then that we go back through the slum in one or two years’ time and show that the slum has effectively been upgraded,” says Pigot, “because there are more people using the toilets, or there are more toilets or more water, or the air quality is better, or there are more people using the local health service.”

The hope is that organizations such as UN-Habitat would then use that information to identify areas where it should be working, or show how upgrading is helping improve slum conditions, he said.

Further, with a database of slum dwellers on hand, the organization will be able to show government officials who has been living in the informal settlements as long-term residents in case upgrading efforts get underway, to ensure that those residents are not excluded from upgrading benefits, he says.

“Because of our census, and because we’re doing it before there’s an announcement of slum upgrading, we’ll be able to make sure that [it’s a fair process] by handing to the local authority the database of people who really live here now,” he says.

[See: Standardized urban data is helping this Nigerian city guide development]

Addressing the Unaddressed continues its work in Kolkata with ambitions of providing all slum dwellers there with addresses. Based on its current funding, that could take up to 10 years, according to Pigot. The group also is working to get more of the informal settlements it has addressed and mapped represented on Google maps.

Pigot wants to establish a training centre in Kolkata so that people interested in addressing slums in other parts of the world can come learn to use the technology and then apply it in their own cities. To finance some of this work, it may lease out its database of slum dwellers to third parties, such as local and national government, banks and utilities.

“Anywhere in the world that has a slum — if we have the bandwidth to be able to help we’d be delighted to do so,” says Pigot.

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

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