in government, Ireland, transport

A proper address can be a matter of life and death

The Irish Times reports this morning that an ambulance was sent to a wrong address and that as a result receipt of medical attention was delayed. The child subsequently died. This is a great tragedy, most of all for that child’s parents, but also for us all. We can cure cancer, but we can’t get an ambulance out to a dying child.

[updated with new information 22 June, see below]

It would be wrong to attribute this tragedy to some sort of human error by somebody working in a contact centre. The truth is that it is practically impossible to deal with Irish addresses on a consistent, reliable basis. The whole system of keeping track of where all the houses and premises are is in chaos. I have written about this before.

A lot of the town and townland names are similar or the same, which is probably what caused this particular problem. What’s more, many addresses within the same area are non-unique, meaning that houses and roads don’t have individual names.

It would also be wrong to attribute this tragedy to being ‘just one of those things’. This is a problem that can be solved. The government and the agencies have been working on this problem for over 1o years, but they haven’t come up with any solution. The household tax seemed like an opportunity to deal with this issue, but it hasn’t been taken up. Equally, the improvements in property registration haven’t resulted in any improvement in addresses. Geodirectory, a database of postal addresses (not legal addresses or street addresses, mind, but postal addresses) is a little more available than it was ten years ago as a result of the Internet, but it is still very complex and expensive. It is also not particularly accurate. It is fine as a marketing database and maybe as a delivery database, but it just isn’t up to snuff as a basis for critical lifesaving operations.

The news is not all bad though. Enough progress has been made that the cause of this failure can be resolved quickly and inexpensively. Between them, CSO and the Ordnance Survey have developed a fairly comprehensive and well thought out system of small areas in conjunction with NUI Maynooth, which will lend itself well to helping develop a simplified system of coding and managing address information. This, together with existing county and ED boundaries formed the basis of NSAI/ICTSCC/SC4’s proposal to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in 2010

However, the government really needs to act to sort this out. At present, the government is in the middle of a very complex and long tender process to develop and implement a postcode. That process has been ongoing for 3 years and it does not seem likely that it will come to a conclusion that will be advantageous for the taxpayer.

Or for that matter, for young children who need medical attention in a hurry. We owe it to this child and the child’s parents, and indeed to all the people who work in our emergency services. We really need to sort this out this before more people die.

Update 22 June: More details in the Herald. There was also an article in the Irish Times which conveyed the (incorrect) view that data protection was an issue in this instance. The ambulance service benefits from a broad exemption from data protection legislation under sections 8(d) and 8(h) of the Data Protection Act 1988, which deal with situations where the life of a person is in danger, or the individual involved has given consent.

The Herald article gives some extra details of the location. A quick search indicates that ‘The Tennis Village’ in Cork is not readily findable either in Geodirectory or on Google Maps. I presume this entry in the property register relates to the location where the ambulance was actually required. It seems to be referred to in Geodirectory as ‘Edenhall, Model Farm Road’. (This confirms my point about the overall accuracy of the Geodirectory database. This is an instance where Geodirectory is fine as a marketing or general purpose use, but is not really reliable enough for time-critical lifesaving operations.)

As this goes on, it is important that this not turn into a political football. A child died and a family has been left heartbroken, and above all they deserve our sympathies.

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  1. As a software developer who has worked on the lifesaving Aero-Medical application ( I must object to some of the points you have made regarding Geodirectory. This database, in conjunction with town land data from the OSI and other service databases, allows our national air ambulance service to complete time critical transfers with high degrees of accuracy.

    While I do agree that having a postcode system in Ireland is an absolute must, in emergency situations there are other options that would also help such as allowing control centres to trace a callers origin using the phone system and ensuring that all ambulances are equipped with a GPS navigation device linked to the control centre.

  2. I agree totally with what you are saying but living as I do in a peripheral rural area, I have developed a grá for my adopted townland of 23 years and the townland in general–it is so evocative and links me back through the generations. I am, however, all for progress so if the old can be incorporated with the new that would be a worthwhile compromise.

  3. Nigel,

    But you are working in a context where the location is already known, or that you have direct access to local knowledge, no?

    My point re Geodirectory is that you can never depend on it alone. It is a fine database in many ways and much improved in recent years. You (rightly) use it in conjunction wtih other information. I wouldn’t think that the air ambulance service would dispatch a helicopter to a coordinate provided by geodirectory. You would have to verify with some other source that you are in fact looking at the correct building.