Today, in many parts of the world, imagining an item you want and having it show up at your door an hour or a few days later is a convenience that’s a click away. Cheeseburgers, cough medicine, batteries — with help from tech, you might not think twice about your ability to conjure thoughts into things.
But that’s a kind of modern magic that doesn’t work for everyone. More than 2 billion people globally don’t have a precise physical address, making it hard to receive deliveries and access basic public services. This barrier to access affects people around the world, including parts of Africa and India, most emerging countries, various small villages in Europe, some Native American communities in the U.S., neighborhoods across Latin America and beyond.
Take Paraisópolis in Brazil, a favela where more than 100,000 people live in a dense area with unmarked streets, dead ends and unnumbered doors. “For years, most companies would not deliver goods in Paraisópolis because it’s like a maze and it’s very hard to find places,” says Wilson Rodrigues, a strategic partner manager for Google based in Brazil. “Any delivery would require walking the last mile through alleys with little sense of direction. As a result, the residents of Paraisópolis lacked access to services many of us take for granted.”
Paraisópolis residents had some creative workarounds for the issue, like having “street presidents” who would receive and distribute deliveries for nearby families, or getting goods delivered to stationary trucks with addresses that were easier to locate. But there were still major gaps in address access.
“I spoke to one resident who couldn’t enroll her son in school without an address. She told me ambulances couldn’t find homes and she couldn’t get medicine delivered from hospitals,” says Antonio Netto, who works on Google Cloud in Brazil.
Alexandra Pereira Silva, an administrative assistant and Paraisópolis resident, experienced this lack of access firsthand. “It was as if we didn’t exist because no one found us,” she says.
Antonio and Wilson couldn’t shake the idea that they needed to help and could put Google’s technical resources to work. So, in October 2021, they banded together with other Googlers to piece together a plan to create thousands of digital addresses using Plus Codes, for the Paraisópolis neighborhood.
Plus Codes is an open-source technology that divides the entire world into grids based on latitude and longitude. Each grid box is then divided again and again, so you can eventually locate any spot on the planet with just a few numbers and letters. Plus Codes can then work like any other address to help people receive deliveries, get access to emergency services and find each other in apps like Google Maps.
Plus Codes uses latitude and longitude to produce a short, easy-to-share digital address.
To create those Paraisópolis Plus Codes, Antonio and Wilson turned to the Android app Address Maker, which lets approved groups generate accurate Plus Codes and assign them to residences. In May 2022, they shared the Address Maker tool with Paraisópolis residents who volunteered to help and were onboarded and trained, along with the NGO G10 Favelas, which focuses on fostering economic development in Brazil, and delivery startup Favelas Brazil Xpress (FBX), which continually faced the challenge of finding people in Paraisópolis. FBX also agreed to print address boards with different Plus Codes and attach them to physical locations. Large Brazilian retailer Americanas, which had been working to improve services in the favela, became a major partner for sourcing goods.
Alexandra Pereira Silva, Paraisópolis resident. Credits: Cria Brasil
So began the largest partnership of its kind in Latin America, one focused on promoting social inclusion and facilitating access to basic services — and to date over 14,000 Plus Codes have been created in Paraisópolis. “People are no longer so afraid of getting here,” says Paraisópolis shopkeeper Claudia Silvério.
The hope is that this work could bring access to services to millions of people across Brazil — and possibly, one day, to many more people globally.
For now, Antonio and Wilson are working to expand the program in Brazil. “Our plan is to use this as a model in other favelas,” Wilson says. “We’re already underway in a new favela in the São Paulo metro area, Favela dos Sonhos.”
To kick off the Favela dos Sonhos Plus Codes project, Wilson worked with Sanderson Pajeú, founder and CEO of delivery logistical startup naPorta, which had participated in the Google for Startups Accelerator program in Brazil in 2022. In November of the same year, naPorta was selected for Google’s Black Founders Fund.
In December 2022, naPorta got to work in Favela dos Sonhos by printing address cards, labeling buildings with the Codes and delivering goods. The results are promising. One company in the region that distributes gas canisters — an important source of energy in the favelas — historically had a challenging time finding locations and getting deliveries to people. Then the company started using Plus Codes.
"I ordered the gas cylinder, entered the digital address and the delivery guy had no trouble finding my house — it was super fast," says Marcia Ferreira, a stay-at-home mother with three children and a husband. "It's a feeling of joy for us to have our address, ask for our things and have them arrive at our house."