How the history of postal addressing affects the future of business

A blog post by Dr Ian Hopkinson, Data Scientist, GBG

In the UK we take our postal addressing system for granted. It’s been around all our lives, although older members of the community will remember the introduction of the current postcoding scheme. But how can an international business move into a new territory without knowing the nuances of its streets?

The familiar system of street / building number addressing is quite recent. It first appeared during the 18th century as a result of urbanisation and the introduction of national postal services. Prior to this, communities were small enough that providing someone’s name and occupation or location relative to a landmark was enough. Besides, long distance communication was so difficult and expensive that only the wealthy had access to it, by use of couriers.

Understanding and working with addressing formats is a core of GBG’s business. We started life decades ago as a company whose unique skill was compressing the UK’s entire postal addressing file to fit onto a CD-ROM.

The Universal Postal Union currently has 192 members. Originally founded to facilitate international mailing, it promotes universal standard formats for addressing mail. We use postal addresses to ensure post is efficiently delivered to people and businesses. As a side effect, the address a customer supplies may be used as part of an ID check.

At GBG we’re interested in the formal address format that postal services define, but also the way the public cites their address and how it is entered into online systems.

As with many things there are always exceptions to the “rules” of formatting, which will cause problems in the automated processing of addresses. These are collected in the “Falsehoods that programmers believe about addresses” list.

Street name / number formats are common across much of the world. Although, outside English speaking countries the street name is usually presented before the number. Here are some other interesting world differences:

  • In China, the address is written in reverse order to the UK. It starts with the biggest element of the address, i.e. the country or city, and works down to the number.
  • In Germany the street name and “description” are usually merged into one – for example “Station Road” is Bahnhofstraße.
  • Japan uses a confusing system of numbering on city blocks which relates to the relative age of a property, rather than our system of numbering consecutively from one end of a road with odd numbers on one side and even on the other is common.

In order to create consistency, the World Bank has been involved in a range of schemes to introduce street-house number addressing into cities in sub-Saharan Africa since the early nineties. This requirement arises from the rapid expansion of these cities as a result of development which left the suburbs of these cities with neither formal addressing on maps or addressing signage on the ground. The street-house numbering scheme is seen as quick to implement compared to full mapping where the ownership of land is established and an addressing scheme is part of this process.

Clearly, street addressing in the developing world offers new challenges but new technology offers different solutions to the problems presented.

At GBG we continually work to improve our address matching solution for all our customers by improving the quality of the underlying addressing data we hold. At the same time, we keep a watchful eye on developments in addressing around the world so that we can grow with you as your business moves into new territories.

If you’re interested in global address validation for your organisation find out more here, or visit to see how we work with partners.

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