International addressing standards – origins and value

Dr. Serena Coetzee, South Africa

Addresses provide one of the most common ways to identify and locate objects, such as buildings or moorings. Therefore, they are widely used, e.g., for postal delivery, emergency response, marketing, utility planning, and land administration. An address is clearly geographic information, as defined by ISO: “information concerning phenomena implicitly or explicitly associated with a location relative to the Earth” (ISO 19101-1:2014, 4.1.18). 

Since addresses are used so widely, it was not clear which ISO technical committee, or even international organization, should develop international addressing standards when the work was initiated in 2008. At that time, an addressing standard for postal applications had been developed by the Universal Postal Union (UPU), while OASIS and ISO/TC 154, Processes, data elements and documents in commerce, industry and administration, had each developed a standard for customer and business information that included addresses. In the context of geographic information, several national and regional standards for addressing also existed.  

During the ISO/TC 211 preparatory work, various potential routes for proceeding with an international addressing standard were explored. The preliminary work brought together all the relevant stakeholders. It established the necessary credentials for further work on a multi-part standard to proceed in ISO/TC 211, even though some parts were not within the scope of work of this committee. The other ISO technical committees and organizations were encouraged to get involved, as applicable and desirable, as liaisons or joint project developers of the different parts of the ISO 19160 standard.

Today, the multi-part ISO 19160 addressing standard supports a wide variety of stakeholders, making reliable address data available, accessible, and usable. The different parts of ISO 19160 cover topics such as terminology and a conceptual data model for addressing (ISO 19160-1:2015); quality of address data (ISO 19160-3:2020); and international postal addressing, jointly developed with the UPU (ISO 19160-4:2017 / UPU S42). Standards for good practices for address assignment and maintenance (ISO 19160-2) and digital interchange models (ISO 19160-6) are under development. 

The value of standardized addresses was brought to the surface by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Addresses and address data turned out to be crucial because they enabled contact tracing and identification of cluster outbreaks. Non-standardized addresses significantly hindered the response to COVID-19.