SAN JUAN COUNTY — It’s a hot, October afternoon, and Dalene Redhorse is driving down an unnamed road on the Navajo Nation. In the backseat of her pickup, she’s got a bag of small blue signs that she’s delivering today.
She pulls up in front of a pale yellow house and parks. There’s duct tape on the windows and dogs wandering around the front door. She greets a man named Darryll, who lives here.
“I was trying to call you this morning. I was like, ‘You better sober up, boy, we’re coming,’” she jokes. “I was gonna stop by to see if we can put up a sign.”
Redhorse works for a nonprofit called the Rural Utah Project, which is addressing around 2,000 houses on the Utah strip of the Navajo reservation using Google plus codes.
She pulls out a sign with a plus code on it. The code is six letters and numbers, which correspond to the location of Darryll’s home.
“This is gonna be your address,” she explains.
Redhorse helps Darryll fill out a voter registration form with his plus code, while her colleague Drew Cooper attaches the sign to the outside of his house.
Not having an address can impact voting rights as well as quality of life. Up until now, people like Darryll who live on the reservation have had to describe their location on voter registration forms using landmarks like buildings or mile markers on county roads. And those descriptive addresses can be hard to interpret, according to John David Nielson, the San Juan County Clerk.
“If you look at the map and you see a precinct line coming down the road, and on one side of the road you have a house, and on the other side of the street you have a house. And they’re in two different precincts. And if you get a voter registration form that says, ‘I live 7 miles north of whatever,’ It’s like, ‘What house am I going with?’” Nielson said.
So, the county was using voting precincts as part of voters’ addresses to try to solve this problem. But those boundaries changed when a federal judge imposed new commission and school districts on the county in 2018, rendering the addresses that contained the old precincts obsolete.
The Rural Utah Project discovered this while registering voters in San Juan County last year.
“I found out like 2,000 people, 2,000 voters, had these addresses that didn’t relate at all to where they actually lived,” Cooper said.
Redhorse was one of them.
“I was listed or pinned in a sewer pond or something,” she said. “And that’s where we found out a lot of people were in the wrong district, because that wasn’t even in my school district.”
Addressing all of the homes on the reservation in San Juan County is a major undertaking. Around 6,000 people live there, and Redhorse located all of their houses herself. She said it took her two months and put over 4,000 miles on her truck.
“I went through five tires. And then all of the suspension in the front end of my truck went out,” she added.
Delivering the signs is going to take even longer. In addition to putting a sign up at each house and updating voter registration forms with the new address, the Rural Utah Project is collecting data, like how many adults and children live in each house. Their goal is to make that information available to census workers next year in order to help them get a complete count of residents on the reservation in Utah. Redhorse said she expects it will take months to deliver all the signs.
The Navajo Nation has been trying to address the reservation since 2003, in an effort to improve emergency services. But it hasn’t worked very well.
Because of this, Redhorse says she encountered a lot of skepticism when she told people they’d finally be getting an address.
“A lot of them were like, ‘Oh, that’s been ongoing for a long time, it’s never happened, nobody’s ever come around,’” she said. “Now I’m excited to actually go to homes. It’s like, ‘Here, see, we are doing something.’”
The Navajo Nation Addressing Authority oversees addressing on the reservation, but each local government, called a chapter, is responsible for mapping its members’ houses and naming roads.
Chapters have been slow to act though, and there’s no penalty for failing to do so, according to Addressing Authority director M.C. Baldwin. He said only 30 out of the 110 Navajo Nation chapters have completed the process of creating addresses.
“If I had funding for 110 people, I could send each of them to these 110 chapters. But I don’t know if that will ever happen,” he said.
In the meantime, plus codes help. Baldwin has started using the codes to describe where residents live on physical address verification forms, which his office provides to people who need to get state IDs or drivers’ licenses. And a county in Arizona is already using them for voting and to deliver emergency services to people on the Navajo reservation.
But the applications of plus codes are even broader than that. Every place on earth has a unique plus code, which can be found by dropping a pin on a point in the Google Maps application. Google developer Doug Rinckes invented the codes in 2014, after he learned that half the world’s population lives on unnamed streets.
“We just want to make it so you can tell me where you are. And people go, ‘Well you could use latitude and longitude.’ And we go, ‘You could, but nobody does,’” he said.
Google has worked with nonprofit groups to address areas of India and Africa. And Rinckes says plus codes have transformed life for poor people in those countries.
“If you live in one of these slums, you can’t have a bank account ... because the banks need an address,” he said. “And now they have something that they can tell people, ‘Yeah, this is my address.’”
Plus codes are still new to the United States though. Google is donating the signs for San Juan County to the Rural Utah Project, making the effort Google’s first official plus code project in this country. But government workers in Apache County, Arizona, have been using plus codes to locate residents since 2017.
Like San Juan County, Apache County is very rural, and many of its residents live on the Navajo Nation. Emergency responders there have also started using plus codes. And the Rural Utah Project wants that to happen in San Juan County as well. They’ve created a map that works offline for emergency responders that shows each house and its plus code.
And while voting may be the impetus for the project, Redhorse said people are most excited that ambulance drivers will be able to find them in case of emergencies.
“The drivers right now, they go to other homes and say ‘Where does this person live?’ So that’s one thing that everybody will benefit from,” she said.
The Rural Utah Project started delivering signs this month and plans to finish before the general election next year.