The future of addresses?

  • Digital addresses are supposed to be the next big thing
  • But the sector has proved notoriously hard to crack, even for firms like Google 

Driving through busy Bengaluru localities like Koramangala and Indiranagar, dotted with independent homes, artisanal cafés and hip pubs, you can’t help noticing the bright yellow rectangular boards affixed to the walls of homes and establishments. These eye-catching metallic boards sport a series of nine digits in groups of three stencilled into them. Closer scrutiny will reveal some fine print on the boards—one says “BBMP", which one can safely assume refers to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the city’s primary civic body; another says “".

EasyZip is a Bengaluru-based start-up that is creating digital addresses and address mapping systems for Indian cities. The two-year-old company is running a pilot project in some Bengaluru neighbourhoods with permission from the BBMP. Homeowners and businesses can opt for an EasyZip “smart address"—a nine-digit number that can be used in lieu of a conventional address—for free, and pay a small fee to have the board installed. They can pay a little more for a custom code, like a business-owner who bought the number “024-007-365".

As we rely more and more on services that depend on the accuracy of our addresses—from booking an Uber or Ola to ordering food to getting things delivered from dozens of e-commerce websites—the gaps in Indian addressing systems become obvious. Of course, with Google location pins, many of us are able to create some sort of a workaround, but those who are tech-savvy enough to book cabs or order merchandise through online apps are not very confident about using the full array of Google Maps’ features. Then again, think of that time you were going to an independent house. While apartment and building names show up on maps, independent homes are trickier and you would have to use a nearby landmark—a store, school or a bus-stop—as the location to navigate.

This is the kind of pain point EasyZip is trying to solve, though the journey has been long and arduous, and several start-ups that tried to solve this problem, like LinCodes and Topo, have fallen by the wayside. “We thought deep and hard about why these solutions did not work, studied all the digital address models and created several iterations of the address format itself to arrive at our unique nine-digit system," says Atul Prabhu, co-founder, EasyZip. For instance, Prabhu and his team decided that an alphanumeric system would not work in India because of language barriers and sharing the “zip" verbally could lead to confusion because of variations in accents and pronunciation, whereas numerical familiarity is more common. They initially tried a six-digit number but realized that they would soon run out of unique combinations. They also wanted the number to be immediately noticeable and memorable—and the nine-digit code grouped by three on a yellow background was finalized. “The way it is designed, you can see the number from a 25ft distance," says Prabhu. The start-up has created 10,000 EasyZip IDs so far and is in the process of tying up with businesses like home-stay aggregators and restaurant chains. “In any urban scenario with so much mobility and migration, a standardized address format really is the future of addresses," says Prabhu.

The company is not the first to think on these lines. Hyderabad-based start-up Zippr, launched in 2013 with eight-character alphanumeric address codes, has attracted funding from VCs like the Indian Angel Network, Singapore Angel Network and GrayCell Ventures, as well as one million users. But the business-to-consumer model of digitizing addresses has limited scope, says founder Aditya Vuchi. Zippr has now pivoted to a business-to-government (B2G) model. “We felt that the magnitude of the problem was much bigger and we needed to cater to a larger population, including the bottom of the pyramid, which is most disadvantaged due to the lack of a discoverable address. For tech-savvy people, simple location-sharing became commonplace using WhatsApp and other messaging tools, limiting the use of our Zippr code to e-commerce transactions with businesses. In late 2015, we pivoted to a B2G model where we now partner with the government to provide an end-to-end addressing system to provide a new official address that will help all citizens, administrators and businesses," says Vuchi.

The company spoke to town planners, city administrators and senior bureaucrats across the country to understand the problem, using the insights to create a new addressing system called “Digital Door Number" (DDN) that uses satellite imagery to extract the road network and building polygons. “Our technology leverages machine learning and computer vision models to algorithmically generate an intuitive and sequential locality and street-based address for each building/dwelling. Based on this, a smart board using radio frequency identification (RFID) and/or QR code is being installed in over 4.5 million homes across 100-plus cities in India," says Vuchi. The government (Centre and states) outreach has led to gazette notifications to ensure formal recognition of DDN as the official address by public utility systems such as emergency services, water department, land records, electricity department, property tax records. Zippr has also piloted its solution with India Post, which is evaluating pan-India implementation.

Delhi-based tech company Map My India is also into the digital addresses game. Building on its considerable map-data, last year it launched its standardized digital addresses product called “eLoc", a six-digit alphanumeric code to represent complex addresses that uniquely identifies any place and is linked to various attributes like floor and door numbers. The company wants users to think of eLoc as “the pincode to your doorstep".

And that’s not all—even Google has its own system of digital address creation called Plus Codes, which it launched in India in February last year, though it has been rather quiet about it. Plus Codes are 10 characters long, with information about the city and state embedded in them.

The ecosystem, as one can see, is fragmented and in a state of flux. Obviously, a large number of different formats, all competing with each other, is likely to add, rather than solve the confusion over Indian street addresses. Whether the systems merge into each other or one emerges as the default system remains to be seen.

Prabhu is optimistic and unfazed by the entry of big firms like Google. “In all businesses, there’s always a big guy and a small guy. There are things that the big guy can’t do, and things that the small guy can’t do. Of course, Google has deep pockets, but specialization and localization are important as well," says Prabhu.