Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Address Standards: What they are and What’s happening

Tags:   address formats, address standards, international addresses, Univeral Postal Union (UPU); S42; address elements

In discussing addresses, it is useful to define the elements that make up an address – any address.  Providing a common language to discuss and define the elements in an address has been one of the necessary tasks in creating address standards.  I have written previously about the different name that can be used for the same element:  the equivalent of U.S. states are called Counties, Districts, Estados, Oblasts, Provincias, Qarqe, Rayons, States, Territories, Velayat, Wilayat, among other terms.  A commonly agreed term let’s us identify the same element in international addresses. These elements can then be put together to define any address in any country, using an agreed upon vocabulary. 

I live in the city of Baltimore, in the state of Maryland in the United States.  My office is on East Pratt Street.  Mail is delivered to our building number.  My address could be parsed as

Addressee prefix   Addressee given name   Addressee family name
Company name   Company type
Building number   Directional prefix   Thoroughfare name   Thoroughfare type
Locality   Province   Postcode

That’s fairly simple but it gets much more complicated.  If this were a real address standard definition, it would include proper spacing and correct punctuation.  Someone in the U.S. could have mail delivered to a post office box, a box number in an apartment complex, a designated building in an industrial complex, and many other variations.  In some places the Directional would follow the Thoroughfare name and type.  If that person were in Puerto Rico, the address might include a Colonia.

Addresses can include many other elements: a city section, a post town and a village, building name, a main and subsidiary thoroughfare, regions, districts, and many more.  Each element must have a unique name and, preferably, one that is easy to understand.  It helps if it is not ambiguous to people from other countries.  No small task!

The standards include more than the address elements and their placement in an address block.  They include language information, for example, so that the correct character set can be determined and the direction in which the language is written will be clear.  Germany, English, French, Spanish, et al. are written left to right; Arabic and Hebrew are written right to left.  Chinese and Japanese present other issues to solve.

A number of organizations have undertaken the work toward address standards with common definitions.   The Universal Postal Union (UPU) has made significant progress in this area with its standard S42.  The elements have been defined.  Many countries have participated in providing address information and verifying their address formats.  A recognition ceremony will be held at the UPU’s meetings in Berne, Switzerland in February as another group of countries join the “club” of countries with defined and verified address standards.

There is more to be done, more countries to include.  There may yet be new elements and surely will be something new to learn about address formats.

Congratulations to all those countries that have their addresses in the standard.
Thank you to the UPU and those – staff and volunteers – who made this possible.