‘where the streets have no name’

that’s the title of a short article in the jan/feb 2013 atlantic— and i couldn’t think of a better one.

i have written previously about the joys of getting and giving directions in lower-income countries – specifically for research and household follow-up, although the general taxi/auto/tuk-tuk stories of trying to reach any specific location purposefully are equally fun (in hindsight).

after reading my initial post, at least one friend reminded me that people at home (in the US) aren’t always so good at directions either, too familiar with a route to think about landmarks or to remember street names, and already too accustomed to google maps & similar being able to get the job done. the atlantic article from the title, about west virginia, re-emphasizes, for one, that a lack of street names, the use of landmarks, etc, is hardly only a poor-country phenomenon – rather, that “addresses have historically been an urban commodity” and one that probably belonged to highly literate urban areas with people who moved around the city a good deal.

formalizing addresses is more important than the inconvenience of trying to find a location or getting mail delivered. it is also essential for emergency services to find you and is presumably useful for tax collection and other basic services of the state.

which brings us to the second important part of the article: west virgina relied both on 911-services and a deal with verizon to get the mapping and road-naming word underway. knowing the power and visibility of mobile companies in many low- and middle-income countries, would this not be a reasonable way  to move the task forward? of all the potential projects for m-dev (e.g. and here, h/t tom paulson), it seems to me that mapping, paying taxes, and vital registration are some of the most promising and fundamental – as well as good public-private ventures. these would be fairly top-down and possibly foucauldian projects, and may be faulted for that, but i think we need more thinking about how the state can connect with its citizens.

finally, the atlantic article also points out the fun/difficulty of coming up with that many new street names. on absurd street names presumably combined by some random generator (although the linked article points to a single woman), i think my parent’s town has to take the cake.

drive-by truckers (highway 72):

“Don’t know why they even bother putting this highway on the map
Everybody that’s ever been on it knows exactly where they’re at.”

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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