When Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans the US Post Office was faced with a major dilemma. For countless centuries, the modus operandi for the post office was to deliver mail to a location, and the individuals who lived at that location would stop by and pick up their mail. But following the hurricane, the floods had destroyed all of the “locations”.

Normally, if a location has been destroyed, the post office will simply put a forwarding address into the system and the mail will reroute to the new location. However, there was nothing normal about the Katrina disaster, and countless thousands of people were suddenly placed in limbo, transported to cities across the country, some to live in the new city permanently, others to continue on a nomadic journey that would find them living in as many as 10-15 different locations over the course of the coming years.

Katrina victims and the people trying to reach them by mail faced a significant delay, at best, as their mail was either held up in the post office of origin or sent to a succession of temporary addresses. At worst, many letters became permanently lost as the legacy systems inside the U.S. Postal Service tried desperately to adapt to some rather extraordinary circumstances.

This disaster brought home the fundamental problems associated with delivering to a ‘location’ rather than delivering to a ‘person’.

The average person in the US will move 16 times over the course of their lifetime, roughly once every five years. In any given year, approximately 20% of the population will change the place they call home.

Complicating the problem further, the average teenager today will hold 11 different jobs by the time they are 30, and with work becoming more project-based, that number is sure to climb.

Over the past decade the telephone industry began going through a similar transformation. In the early 1990 the vast majority of phone lines went to a location. Today, the vast majority of phones sold are going to individuals with little regard to their ‘location’.

Similarly, in 1995 the vast majority of all email addresses were for location-based computers. You had to be using a specific machine to get your emails. Today, the email systems have been adapted so people can receive their email where ever they may be.

All of the more recent communications technologies, such as text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, have adopted the policy of sending information to the individual as opposed to a location.

While it is true that in some cases we want things delivered to a business at a specific location, such as parts for a manufacturing operation or books for a school, our current systems don’t allow for the separation of individuals and locations. Consider the following scenarios.

  • Scenario #1: In the military, soldiers can’t wait for the next letter from back home. Because of the sensitivity of their position many don’t have access to cell phones, and being mobile, moving from base to base, the delivery of letters becomes a logistics nightmare.
  • Scenario #2: The number of telecommuters have grown rapidly over the past decade and in many companies, over 30% of the workforce now works from home. In the past it was easy to send a letter to a person at the company’s main address. With employees scattered across several continents, the problem with tracking all these addresses continues to escalate.
  • Scenario #3: One of the past guests on the David Letterman Show was Dean Kamazes, an ultra-marathoner who runs 200-300 miles at a time. During the interview, Letterman asked Dean how he managed to eat while he was running. His answer was that he used a cell phone to call a pizza delivery shop and had the driver meet him at a location he planned to be at 30 minutes later. In this case, the pizza was being delivered to a future location.

It is easy to make the assertion that the postal system is stuck in the past. However, there is a big difference between the delivery of a physical item and the delivery of digital item. Rest assured, the postal system is not alone. FedEx, UPS, and local courier services are all heavily immersed in the delivery of physical items to a physical location.

The world of addressing has become a growing source of friction, slowing the connection between buyers and sellers. Most people know how difficult it is to receive a “signature required” package through FedEx or UPS. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the item delivered directly to you, no matter where you happen to be?

So, is it possible to create a technology for the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS that will enable them to switch from static location-based addresses to dynamic, ever-changing personal addresses? More importantly, if someone invents the technology, will any of the delivery services implement it?

The starting and ending nodes of our connected world are often major disconnect points. The efficiencies we have come to expect in the online world simply don’t translate well into our current systems in the off-line world.

So where do we go from here? What are the systems we need to create to solve these problems? The answer to these questions is a system that will redefine our future.

By Thomas Frey

3 Responses to “Addressing the Problem of Addresses”

Comments List

  1. Matt Grimes

    This is definitely an evolving dilemma and as you mentioned has been met successfully by the phone companies and email providers. Yet, there is a significant difference in receiving a digital signal/message vs. a physical item. The only technical solution that comes to mind would require the "transporter" technology from Star Trek. I can see a scenario where you ordered a pair of new boots from a store, and receive a message from the store that the boots are ready for "pickup". You stop by a convenient transporter station (or perhaps each home has one) and key in the coordinates provided in the message. Voila, the boots materialize, you collect them and off you go. In your Scenario #1 above I would not say that delivering mail to the military is a logistical nightmare. The services have been doing that successfully for centuries. The distinction is simply that each individual is assigned to an organizational unit and the location of the unit is always known. Thus, mail be dealyed while a unit is in transit but will always eventually meet up with the recipient.
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mark Vickers</a>

    GPS systems, of course, potentially allow people to be tracked via mobiles, and a person could give permission to the Postal Service or other entity to temporarily track them when needed. Whether delivery could be just-in-time/place is another question. A person could also, of course, just set up a system that beams his or her current location (hotel room, P.O., etc.) to deliverers whenever it changes, much like an Outlook reminder when people are away from the Office. The technology doesn't seem difficult. It's the delivery logistics and privacy issues that are tough.
  3. Barbara Mason

    Having the responsibility of delivering over 500K peices of mission critical mail to the warfighter in every battle theatre I understand all of the issues and problems. Linking mail to a person (NCOA) is not the only answer. The answer is in having flexible and adaptive systems within USPS. Is this impossible, no but regreatfully also not very likely.

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