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How do you respond to an emergency call when there are no addresses?

In most developed countries, emergency services pride themselves on the rapidity and efficiency of their response, knowing that delays can cost lives. In fact, an increasing number of jurisdictions set response times have become a key indicator of emergency service effectiveness, with many police agencies particularly in the United Kingdom setting specific targets for response times and reporting actual data against these targets in their annual reports to their communities and to their governing bodies, while giving commanders useful feedback if it’s shown that these targets are not met.

Even in the developed world, poorly addressed communities can lead to frustration and costly delays in emergency services response times; developing nations the lack of proper street and house addresses is both life-threatening and growth limiting. Even today, with all our advances in technology global positioning and geo-location, almost 75% of the world, or around 135 countries, lack systems that can adequately and consistently identify proper locations.

This equates to approximately 4 billion people around the world that are invisible. They are unable to report crime, receive aid, enjoy protection and exercise many of their rights as citizens, simply because they have no way of accurately communicating where they live. While poor addressing might seem annoying in some countries, in the developing world it costs lives.

In many of the countries where the writer has served, whether in Latin America, Southeast Asia or Africa, one of the problems emergency services face is that there are simply no street names or house numbers that help to identify a location. In some cases a location is provided by referring to a nearby landmark or feature, sometimes nothing more than a prominent tree that everyone knows. Assuming of course that the tree still stands, and emergency services personnel know which tree you’re referring to!

One of the reasons so few developing world have street names or house numbers, except perhaps for city centres, is that planning processes are either weak or nonexistent. Another reason is that the populations of many metropolitan areas have grown exponentially in the last several decades, with some of the biggest cities more than doubling in population between 1980 and the present. The reasons for these population increases are varied, but mainly have to do with the enormous influx of rural populations flocking to cities in search of enhanced economic opportunities and social advancement.

With this kind of dramatic growth, and the lack of city planners to keep pace with the growth of their own communities, neighbourhoods have grown in a completely unplanned and often unregulated way, with few services available, no new street names and no house numbers provided.

Take Mexico City for example, where the population of the metropolitan area (which includes both the city core and the suburbs) has grown from just over 12 million in the 1980s to over 21 million today. Another example is Cairo, where the population has grown from just over 10 million to just under 20 million today. One of the most dramatic increases seen in recent years is the population growth in Manila. This has increased from just over 5 million to over 22 million today.

Now imagine if there was an easy way for an emergency service to determine a location anywhere in the world, an accuracy of a 3m x 3m square, whether this is due to the need to respond quickly to a break-in or a medical emergency such as a heart attack, where seconds truly count. What if there was a simple cell phone-based application that made it possible for emergency services to stop relying on their city’s often ill-equipped or poorly staffed planning departments to provide street numbers and names? What if, instead of confusing coordinates, every location could be described in a coded fashion with a short series of memorable words that communicate easily!

The ability to accurately identify a location anywhere in the world could not only make the difference between life and death, but would increase the public’s safety as well, and to be able to do this just by having a caller list a number of words that would bring the police, ambulance or fire service directly to their doorstep. This is not only a game changing technology, but a potentially lifesaving one as well!

Mark Reber is a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with 20 years professional experience in policing and security sector reform.

Prior to leaving the RCMP Mark was seconded to several policing oversight agencies, including five years as Chief of Staff to the Oversight Commissioner for Policing Reform in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and eighteen months as a Senior Inspector with the Garda Síochána Inspectorate in Dublin, Republic of Ireland. His subsequent professional efforts were focused on leading policing reform assessments in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central America, continuing to strengthen civilian oversight in Northern Ireland, providing expert advice on police complaints and internal discipline systems in Palestine, and providing anti-corruption capacity building in southern Africa.

Mark holds a Diploma in Management from the University of Ulster, a Master of Arts degree in International Relations from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Politics from the University of Toronto and in International Relations from Carleton University.