Need to conduct a census? Invent house numbers

In Democracy’s Data, historian Dan Bouk explains how the process of counting people led to the development of house numbers:

Photo by Vitaly Kushnir on

Numerical addresses owed their very existence to censuses. House numbers are essentially names state offices assigned to lodgings. According to one historian, the idea of marking houses with consecutive numbers dates to the desire of Enlightenment monarchs – like the Austrian Maria Theresa – to make a better count of men who could be conscripted into the military. Houses were also sometimes numbered to count minority groups, like the Jews of Prague in one of the earliest cases in 1727, or to make it easier for rulers to find places where soldiers could be billeted. (This practice of quartering soldiers in private homes was common enough, and widely enough disliked, to be proscribed during peacetime in the U.S. Bill of Rights, in the Third Amendment.) Odd-numbered houses on one side of the street, even-numbered houses on the other, had to be invented too. Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital at the time, alternated odds and evens in order to make it easier to conduct the federal census in 1790. New York City copied its neighbor in 1793, as did Paris in 1805. Though people quickly came to rely on numerical addresses to find one another, send letters, or navigate strange and growing cities, those uses were accidental benefits of an apparatus meant to serve the data makers in imperial or national bureaucracies. (58)

It is hard to imagine a world without numbered street addresses today. Perhaps it is just the scale of communities; how would you differentiate between the thousands of addresses within a small geographic area? Street addresses are not the only way properties are identified. Communities have categorization systems for parcels. The way current addresses are set up requires a zooming in approach: you start with the community or zip code, find the street, and then identify the number. Of course, there could be a system that does not use or need numbers, but it is hard to imagine such a system in the quantified world we inhabit.

More broadly, numbers are helpful with addressing particular social issues. Conducting a census helps with social matters like taxation, resource allotment, and more. Having numbers for addresses helps enable counting but also aids mail delivery and others seeking to find particular addresses.

[CollegeNameHere].com coming to a browser near you

Even though colleges have their own Internet domain, .edu, some colleges are thinking about branching out into .com addresses:

Some observers worry, though, that an influx of new names might dilute the power of “.edu,” which has been the online way to say “a legitimately accredited institution of higher education in the United States.”

Weber State University is among those that have already started branching out, with “” as an online destination. It is “a vanity URL we pursued to dovetail with our ‘Get Into Weber’ marketing campaign that started in 2007,” says John L. Kowaleski, director of media relations. “We wanted something catchy and easy to remember, since the intended audience for “” was prospective students.”

Why not simply add a “” address to the existing ““? Because “.edu” is restricted by the “one per institution” rule that has been in effect since 2001, says Gregory A. Jackson, a vice president of Educause, the higher-education-technology group that administers the “.edu” domain. “The U.S. Commerce Department, which gave us the contract to administer the domain, views ‘.edu’ as something that identifies an institution, not multiple names that mean the same institution,” he says…

Asking the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers for a domain of one’s own—”.weberstate” or “.trinity,” for instance—would avoid some of those problems. But that’s an expensive route to go. A college has to pay Icann $185,000 to become the administrator of a domain, and then $25,000 each year to maintain it. And the college has to adhere to strict rules about who gets the domain and who doesn’t, which could cause other problems. “What if you say that alumni can have ‘.dartmouth’ in order to strengthen connection to the school?” Mr. Jackson says. “And then an alumnus involved in some shady dealings uses that address? You can’t ban them. Icann won’t let you pick who you like and who you don’t.”

If the .com addresses are just for marketing purposes, why haven’t more colleges gone this route already? It isn’t very hard to set up a targeted site and then link through to the college’s main page.

It sounds like some of the issue is the meaning or symbolism behind the .edu domain. If prospective students and parents are searching for schools, they know the .edu domain is pretty safe. The .com realm is more open and there could be some confusion about who put the site together. Particularly for less comfortable web users, going to a .edu could be a safer and trustworthy proposition.

Of course, the rules about the use of .edu sites hints at bigger problems across the internet: a need for more domains to provide more online pages.

(With all of this talk, shouldn’t some enterprising people buy up a bunch of the possible .com sites? For example, is available but is not. )

Potential expansion for domain suffixes

Even amidst discussions that the Internet has run out of addresses, there is talk about expanding the list of available domain suffixes beyond the current 21 options. It sounds like these proposals would allow for all sorts of suffixes and this, inevitably, leads to questions about who would get to control certain domains:

This massive expansion to the Internet’s domain name system will either make the Web more intuitive or create more cluttered, maddening experiences. No one knows yet. But with an infinite number of naming possibilities, an industry of Web wildcatters is racing to grab these potentially lucrative territories with addresses that are bound to provoke.

Who gets to run .abortion Web sites – people who support abortion rights or those who don’t? Which individual or mosque can run the .islam or .muhammad sites? Can the Ku Klux Klan own .nazi on free speech grounds, or will a Jewish organization run the domain and permit only educational Web sites – say, remember.nazi or antidefamation.nazi? And who’s going to get .amazon – the Internet retailer or Brazil?

The decisions will come down to a little-known nonprofit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose international board of directors approved the expansion in 2008 but has been stuck debating how best to run the program before launching it. Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is on the cusp of completing those talks in March or April and will soon solicit applications from companies and governments that want to propose and operate the new addresses.

Sounds like we could have some battles on our hands for particular suffixes. Perhaps the companies or organizations with the most money will win.

But many of the options in this article are set up as “good” options versus “bad” options. If given a choice, how many people would want the .nazi domain to be controlled by the Ku Klux Klan? And some of the other options presented in the story, such as whether someone who wants musicians and agents to be able to get .music addresses while the music industry wants to control this for their larger purposes, are less clear. ICANN, the organization who controls the domains, says they have considered this: “For people who might propose controversial domains – such as .nazi, which ICANN officials have worried about – approval will be based on the applicant’s identity and intentions, and on the grounds of “morality and public order.” How in the world will they be able to do this in a way that is satisfying to multiple parties? Is there a way to decide this before the domains are sold or are we simply in for long rounds of litigation?