Challenges With Administrative Areas Around the World

Since Service Objects released Address Validation International in 2016, we have occasionally had questions about some of the data fields being returned by our service. Each country is very different and the data available on a country by country basis may not be widely available or consistent. In this article, we will take a deeper dive into this service’s administrative areas and the challenges of storing international addresses.

How do countries divide themselves, and what purpose do they serve?

Most of us are used to seeing addresses in the United States: 123 Main Street, Santa Barbara, CA, 93101. A city (locality) and a state (admin area). In addition, our states are sub-divided into logical areas called counties, which while not relevant to addressing, still serve a useful purpose in administering logical and vital services: everything from birth and marriage certificates, to parks and libraries, to elections, taxes and more.

Most countries sub-divide themselves as well, for a variety of reasons. Some serve critical purposes, such as governance in large regions, and some exist purely for historical or cultural reasons. Countries around the world can have anywhere from 0-3 admin area type divisions as well as multiple levels of localities (such as cities, neighborhoods or blocks in the US). However, there are over 250 countries and territories in the world, many of which are different from the US, and our expectations of how things are organized there do NOT apply everywhere in the world.

For example, the European country of Slovakia is divided into 8 kraje (region/states), divided into 79 okresy (districts), divided into 2891 obce (municipalities), which can be further divided into villages. Slovenia, a country of two million people to the southwest of Slovakia, is divided into 212 občine (municipalities) and that’s it. Germany has 16 Länder (states), many of which have their own sub-divisions that differ from other states in Germany. For example, Bremen is a state with just two cities. 4 states such as Bavaria are further subdivided into Regierungsbezirke (districts) before being divided into Kreise (rural and urban sub districts). Nine states are divided directly into the Kreise. These are just three examples of how possible admin areas differ wildly.

What Do Addresses Look Like Around the World?

These three countries tell different stories in terms of country division and location identifiers, however none of them make use of an admin area when addressing a piece of mail. In the Americas, using a state or province is a bit more common, but in Europe only a few do, and the rest of the world is a mixed bag. In fact, fewer than 30% of the overall countries in the world use an admin area in their postal systems. And that number is inflated by small island countries and territories who often do include an admin area especially in cases where the admin area designates a particular island in a chain of islands – which would logically assist in figuring out where a piece of mail should go.

In the United States we might expect to see an address like this:

Our US centric CRM know how to deal with Address, City, State, Zip

In the United Kingdom we might see this:

In this case, we have two street names and two localities and no admin areas. These are all important parts of the address for UK Royal Mail but do not as easily fit into the City,State,Zip paradigm. In other cases, there might be a building name and three dependent localities that lead to a valid address. We have a blog which digs deeper into how to reconsider CRMs when storing international addresses.  We will mostly focus on admin areas in this blog.

Why does this matter? For a number of reasons:

  1. The Content Relationship Management (CRM) tools we use often do not properly account for international addresses. To complete, you really need to allow for up to 4 admin areas and 5 locality and sub-locality designations. If you are trying to jam an address from the UK with no admin areas and 4 localities and sub-localities into a common city/state spot, you are in trouble.
  1. Just like the CRM, we likely built our own databases to store data for addresses and its very likely we did not account for the complexity of an international address. We may have even locked ourselves into a very US-centric set of data points, to which it is impossible to attempt to add an unusual international address.
  1. Postal address data sources are far and away the most authoritative data sources, but if your authoritative data source does not need an admin area, its very likely it will not include it. How do you guarantee a link between an address and a location identifier like a desired admin area when your authoritative data source does not include it?
  1. Your authoritative data sources are not likely to be consistent across countries. Some countries will not even include an admin area, some will prefer fully spelled out names, some will include abbreviations, and some will be numerical or alpha numerical representations of the admin area.

ISO standardized tables can help provide some alternative standardized versions of given admin names and codes, but these while perhaps agreed upon by the international community, they are not generally used or agreed upon by a particular country’s postal system. And if the data is not present in an authoritative data source, it may be hard to link the actual address to the correct location. If you use less authoritative sources you run the risk of getting bad data back on occasion.

How Does That Affect Address Validation International?

DOTS Address Validation International is built mostly on authoritative postal data sources from around the world. Mostly, because not all countries have complete postal systems. Many rural areas in many countries are not well covered. In Mongolia, roughly 30% of the population of 3 million are nomadic and have no true address. Many others use a centralized PO Box system. And of course as stated earlier, fewer than 30% of the countries need admin areas for addressing mail so its not common for the authoritative sources to even include admin areas as part of the address.

Address Validation International’s primary purpose is to validate, clean and standardize addresses in the format of the requested country’s postal system, doing its best to standardize this in a proper format when authoritative data is not available for an area. Data points not relevant to determining if an address is valid or not may not always return, and are considered secondary data points. It is very important that clients using the service acknowledge the potential of missing data points they might have considered a requirement in a US-centric CRM.

Address Validation International does do its best to return extra data when we are confident we are returning the correct thing. However, it is important to us to make sure that we balance speed, efficiency and correctness with the presence of alternative unnecessary data points. ServiceObjects has many alternative data sources that we dig into to find these extra data points and we do so in an efficient manner. There is certainly more we could do but we would negatively affect performance to get back a few more unnecessary fields. We do offer a mapping service (link to DOTS Address Geocode International) which can link an address to other data points.

In addition, countries that do use administrative areas have their own standards and are not consistent from country to country. Some prefer fully spelled out area names, some use 2-3 character abbreviations and some use numeric or alpha numeric codes. Address Validation International will return the value that is relevant to the standardization for that country.

Administrative areas are truly not necessary to standardizing and storing most legitimate international addresses, and may in fact lead to inaccuracies when trying to link alternative data from a non-authoritative source. They may be useful for other situations, and we will continue to look for ways to add more value to our international offerings. If you would like more information about how to work with international addresses, please contact us.

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