Dirty Bits: Flynn, or Flinn? PennDOT vs USPS

In discussions around data quality, one of the challenges I frequently cite is numbered roads which also have a name.  Most roads in my area are this way–PA Route 68 is Evans City Road, PA Route 356 is New Castle Road, PA Route 19 is William Penn Highway, and PA Route 8 is William Flynn Highway.  Mailing addresses reference the name, but when you give verbal directions most people use the number.  The original location of my wife’s flower shop was 190 New Castle Road, and that’s what we printed on our business forms.  But when giving directions, we’d tell people “at the intersection of 68 and 356”.

Because “190 PA Route 356” and “190 New Castle Road” are synonymous, they don’t really fall into one of the best known data quality dimensions.  Both are accurate, and so we need an easy way to know one refers to the other for searches and matching.  There are different ways of handling this, but those aren’t the focus of this post.

Working for a mortgage company, addresses are essential to us, but touch so many other parts of our daily lives without us knowing it.  With multiple ways to abbreviate “William” and “Highway”, and having both a name and a number, PA Route 8 becomes a serious data quality challenge.  Here is a small set of data from the Allegheny County Health Department (http://webapps.achd.net/Restaurant/):

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Having all these forms for the same road makes it very difficult to look up an inspected facility.  ACHD could use a hand in standardization and canonical forms of addresses.

But wait, there’s more.  And I’m not making this up.

What if, for as long as anyone can remember, the road signs spelled the name wrong?  That’s exactly what happened here.  The road was named for a prominent builder and developer, William Flinn (http://surewhynotnow.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-william-flinn-not-flynn-highway.html).  There are even historical markers with the correct spelling where the road begins.  But every road sign, and hence every map, GPS,  business sign and stationery were all printed with the wrong spelling of Flinn.  This goes back decades, based on my informal poll of old timers.

According to Google StreetView imagery, PennDOT replaced the road signs sometime between 2007 and 2011 (Google also got significantly better cameras in that time).

2007 2011
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This is a road I drove every work day for 15 years and noticed this only recently, but it was reported back in 2013 (http://triblive.com/opinion/nafarivanaski/4304741-74/road-signs-flynn).  How did this happen?  According to the article,

Steve Cowan, a PennDOT spokesman, told me that no one at the agency knew how the signs with the “Flynn” spelling came to be along the state route. He confirmed that the “Flinn” spelling is correct and requested that the public notify PennDOT if they see any road signs that say otherwise.

Google Maps was updated sometime between 2016 and 2018, but other map applications still have the incorrect spelling.  That’s because the USPS still uses the spelling “Flynn”, and actually corrects Flinn to Flynn:

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And now we’ve entered into the classic “system of truth” dilemma.  Do we use the PennDOT spelling, which is correct, or do we use the USPS, which is generally accepted as truth by address verification systems and determines delivery point verification?

I wondered if the ACHD adopted the correct spelling yet…

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Nope. 

Are business planning to change?  According to the TribLive article,

“It should be ‘Y-N-N,’ ” said Carole Wolfe, office assistant at John Utz Agency, an insurance firm at 4485 William F-L-Y-N-N Highway. Her sentiment was shared by several other residents and business owners I talked with on Route 8 this week.

“Actually,” I told her, “it’s supposed to be ‘I-N-N.’ ”

Though she said her curiosity is piqued by the name issue, it is not enough that the office letterhead will ever change.

“I don’t pay attention to it because in my mind, it’s Flynn.”

Again, nope.

Handling this is going to take some creative solutions, and we’re still working on the details.  We can’t rely on our AVSs at this time, so we’ll probably have to insert some asserted equivalencies and data quality flags to make sure the addresses aren’t re-AVSd and incorrectly changed.  Cowabunga, dude, as if a vanity name wasn’t enough.

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