UPU S42 – Seamless International Address Validation by Joe Lubenow


The long standing Universal Postal Union (UPU) project S42 to define “International Postal Address Components and Templates” took a major step forward this week in Thailand. Eight Asian nations met in Bangkok under the auspices of the UPU and the Asian Pacific Postal Union (APPU) to being development of country-specific XML templates to document their address structures.

In remarks prepared for the UPU/APPU meeting, UPU Consultative Committee Chairman Charles Prescott said:

The importance of the S-42 project goes well beyond the internal operations of your postal systems. … Very importantly, it will make “local” information available “globally”. S-42 will enable the transmission of address data between countries to be accomplished with greater efficiency and accuracy. It will enable faster and more accurate comparison of mailers’ files with the official address files. This will improve availability of accurate addresses and deliverability, world-wide.

Prescott went on to explain how S42 fits in to the larger UPU strategy with respect to addressing reflected in the ongoing initiative on “Addressing the World-an Address for Everyone”. He stated, “It is the goal of the UPU with its partner UN agencies and businesses to give an address to every human being on earth.”

The S42 project, led by a UPU committee headed by Morocco with a subcommittee led by Ruth Jones of USPS, aims to make international addresses work together in a common XML based format, despite their diversity in scripts, languages, and formats.

If the Asian nations in Bangkok for the joint UPU/APPU workshop complete the process in the succeeding weeks and months, then the majority of the population of the world will be covered under S42. This would be a milestone for the project, first proposed at the UPU Standards Board in 2001.

But it might be asked, who really cares? International address standardization is a topic about which most people are able to comfortably remain uninformed. Still it has a potentially vast impact on international commerce. Credible estimates of international undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail range from 2% to 15%, with higher numbers for mailing to countries lacking data bases and for mailing files that are inadequately formatted or have not been cleaned up enough. Reducing that substantially would eliminate billions of bad outcomes per year, keeping some mailers in business and enabling new entrants. This is just now becoming technically feasible.

We recommend as a best practice the development of a capability not yet available, that is, an international change of address (ICOA) system, based on a restricted secure Internet domain. Ideally this will be used before mailings to exclude pieces whose fate is uncertain or doomed.

Who could develop such an ICOA system? It could be tried by a consortium of Posts, but considering the problem occurs in all countries, the best way would be for the UPU to develop a system and make it accessible through the new secure “.post” network.

This could take the form of an exchange server with the country data retained by each UPU member or designated universal service provider. The decisions would remain with the members, with electronic requests funneled through a network coordinated by the UPU. Requests could come from Posts or directly from trusted industry participants, with equal access for all, fulfilled on fair and reasonable terms.

Being the hub of an ICOA system would not have to make the UPU some sort of central information czar. Instead, the data could be encrypted so that the UPU would not be able to read or retain a single name and address, except only for diagnostic purposes. It would not undermine the role of the universal service providers or lead to security violations, because the member could either provide a new address to a trusted recipient, or simply advise that a particular name and address is not a current valid combination, which in the US is called providing a nixie. Either way, significant savings are available for mailers, sending Posts, and receiving Posts. The system certainly must respect privacy concerns, either through only providing nixies, or by only providing new addresses for businesses, or only for opt-in participants.

Best of all, the ICOA could serve as a COA for all those countries, the majority of the UPU members, that lack such a system. If a party in Kenya has moved to Tanzania, it is a case of ICOA, but if the party has moved within Kenya, surely the more frequent case, it would work as a domestic COA system. How would the information be collected? The same way it has been done in every country that has such a system, that is, from the mail carriers who are the eyes and ears of every Post as they make their periodic rounds. Not even a global information technology company could obtain this data in the course of carrying out an existing service obligation. Nor could such a company do the constant maintenance and updating that will be required as part of its regular rounds. So the Posts have a natural advantage, and need only to seize the opportunity.

The same system could be used to inform the world when mail service to certain areas is suspended due to natural disasters or other causes. In the US, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mail service was shut down for months, and when restored, postcodes came back in service at different times, sometimes just for certain mail classes. Information such as this has economic value for mailers, Posts, other operators, and service providers alike.

This effort to build an ICOA certainly falls within the established mission of the UPU, and yet it would represent a new front for international cooperation.

It appears that the crux of the matter is whether the political will is present to make an ICOA system happen. It is likely that UPU members will be asked to pass a resolution at the 2012 Doha Congress to express that will. Each country should ask itself whether it is in fact willing to tell a prospective mailer from anywhere in the world, at a minimum, that mailing to a particular name and address will be unproductive. If law, policy or inertia prevents that, then how else can postal addresses ever work as well as phone numbers or e-mail addresses? Here as elsewhere, the Posts may need to adapt in order to survive.

Joe Lubenow

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