Today, in many parts of the world, imagining an item you want and having it show up at your door an hour or a few days later is a convenience that’s a click away. Cheeseburgers, cough medicine, batteries — with help from tech, you might not think twice about your ability to conjure thoughts into things.
But that’s a kind of modern magic that doesn’t work for everyone. More than 2 billion people globally don’t have a precise physical address, making it hard to receive deliveries and access basic public services. This barrier to access affects people around the world, including parts of Africa and India, most emerging countries, various small villages in Europe, some Native American communities in the U.S., neighborhoods across Latin America and beyond.
Take Paraisópolis in Brazil, a favela where more than 100,000 people live in a dense area with unmarked streets, dead ends and unnumbered doors. “For years, most companies would not deliver goods in Paraisópolis because it’s like a maze and it’s very hard to find places,” says Wilson Rodrigues, a strategic partner manager for Google based in Brazil. “Any delivery would require walking the last mile through alleys with little sense of direction. As a result, the residents of Paraisópolis lacked access to services many of us take for granted.”
Paraisópolis residents had some creative workarounds for the issue, like having “street presidents” who would receive and distribute deliveries for nearby families, or getting goods delivered to stationary trucks with addresses that were easier to locate. But there were still major gaps in address access.
“I spoke to one resident who couldn’t enroll her son in school without an address. She told me ambulances couldn’t find homes and she couldn’t get medicine delivered from hospitals,” says Antonio Netto, who works on Google Cloud in Brazil.
Alexandra Pereira Silva, an administrative assistant and Paraisópolis resident, experienced this lack of access firsthand. “It was as if we didn’t exist because no one found us,” she says.
Antonio and Wilson couldn’t shake the idea that they needed to help and could put Google’s technical resources to work. So, in October 2021, they banded together with other Googlers to piece together a plan to create thousands of digital addresses using Plus Codes, for the Paraisópolis neighborhood.
Plus Codes is an open-source technology that divides the entire world into grids based on latitude and longitude. Each grid box is then divided again and again, so you can eventually locate any spot on the planet with just a few numbers and letters. Plus Codes can then work like any other address to help people receive deliveries, get access to emergency services and find each other in apps like Google Maps.