A way to be found: How this technology is changing life on Navajo Nation

After four years of fieldwork, the Rural Utah Project announced it completed providing more than 3,000 homes with addresses.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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When Daylene Redhorse’s mother had a stroke, the ambulance driver struggled to find their home in the Navajo Nation. Without a formal address to give the dispatcher, pinpointing their location proved impossible.

After half an hour on the phone, Redhorse’s family put her mother in their own car and met the ambulance instead. “My mom lost a whole hour,” Redhorse said, “she never fully recovered from the stroke.”

Later, when her father had health issues, Redhorse wondered, “How can we better identify where we live so people can easily find us?”

Her experience is not uncommon in the Navajo Nation, where winding dirt roads, limited cell service, streets without names and homes without addresses make driving an ambulance a difficult task.

But now, thousands of homes in the Navajo Nation have a way to be found. The nonprofit Rural Utah Project (RUP) changed the way people find each other on the Utah portion reservation using an open-source technology created by Google. The nonprofit announced in December that after four years it completed addressing more than 3,121 homes in Navajo Nation.

The addresses are simple alpha-numerical “codes” rather than the step-by-step directions people in the Navajo Nation used on everything from voter registration forms to driver licenses.

Google’s “plus codes” make it easier for EMS services to reach those in need, help ensure that registered voters are listed in the right district and even help with day-to-day tasks like receiving mail.

(Courtesy of Rural Utah Project) A Plus Code sign on a home on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, Utah.

A struggle in emergency situations

Directions to a home in Navajo Nation might go something like this:

Go three miles past mile marker seven. On your left, there will be a light brown house.

The problem with those directions, explained Otis Oldman, the EMS director for the Utah Navajo Health System, is that “90% of the houses down here are light brown and you have to start over again.”

In medical emergencies, every minute counts and direction-related delays have lasting consequences for patients. Dispatchers used GPS coordinates gleaned from cellphones to try and find patients, but those coordinates could be off by a mile or two in areas with only one cell tower.

“A lot of our EMS providers are from the area so they kind of just rely on each other to know where that person lives,” Oldman said.

Plus codes are a kind of shorthand for latitude and longitude made up of letters and numbers. For example, the plus code for the post office in Bluff would be: “7CMW+8C Bluff, Utah.”

(Courtesy of Plus.Codes / Google) Monument Valley High School on the Plus Code grid.

On their webpage, Google, which administers the technology, states plus codes are “street addresses for people or places that don’t have one.” Plus codes don’t require an internet connection to use and are free.

“I can’t stress how much it’s really helped us out,” Oldman said. “I know that it’s made the dispatchers a lot happier, knowing that all they have to ask for is the Google Plus code and patients will give it to them.”

Nonprofits deployed plus codes in places like Somalia, Kolkata and now Utah.

A personal mission

Daylene Redhorse, an addressing specialist for RUP, lives south of Bluff on the reservation. Redhorse spent the last few years driving to people’s homes, explaining how the plus codes work, and providing them with the coordinates that match their location.

The first thing people wanted to know was who Redhorse’s parents were.

“They’d be like, ‘Oh, this is how we’re related,’” Redhorse recalled, “and that’s how I found a lot of family out there and they remembered my parents.”

She not only made new connections while explaining plus codes and registering people to vote, but ended up with a few extra pets too. “A lot of the elders started this whole negotiation,” Redhorse said, “‘OK, you want me to fill out a form, you’re gonna have to take a puppy or a kitten.”

At one point, she had 17 cats and 11 dogs.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daylene Redhorse hands information on Plus Codes to her niece, Menvalia Redhorse, on October 10, 2019.

After RUP successfully registered 1,600 new voters in San Juan County, Redhorse wanted to do more. “I wanted the state, the county, to know that Navajos do live in Utah. We reside in Utah,” Redhorse said.

Plus codes help in emergency situations, but also with getting other types of health care, like at-home dialysis treatment. “We all deserve a physical address,” Redhorse said, “and this is the closest we could come to using physical addresses because we don’t have street numbers, we don’t have street names.”

While her addressing work may be done, Redhorse is adamant about getting more people to vote and run in elections. Navajos, Redhorse said, have a say in decisions being made in San Juan County.

“If you want to run for election,” Redhorse said, “come and see me.”