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Addressing the planet

by Giles Rhys Jones

In brief

Every place on earth has a unique what3words address: house in a remote area of Cote d’Ivoire.

Every place on earth has a unique what3words address: house in a remote area of Cote d’Ivoire.

Delivery of products, services and even emergency aid is often hindered by poor information on the exact location of the addressee. An algorithm providing a unique, three-word address for everywhere on earth can help.

According to the UN, more than 75 % of the world’s countries have either a poorly maintained addressing system or no street addressing at all. Yet accurate pinpointing of addresses is an important part of a country’s infrastructure. It enables delivery of services – in health care, transport, emergency response and many other areas – which in turn help communities to function effectively.

Particularly in developing countries, street addressing is often outdated or non-existent. A geocoding system known as “what3words” offers a solution. The system, developed by a private company of the same name, divides the world into 57 trillion squares of three metres by three metres. Each square has a unique address consisting of three dictionary words.

Under this system, every location on the planet has a reliable and accurate address. So, for example, the system allows the pinpointing of the location of a family home in South Africa’s unaddressed townships, or a small business in one of Brazil’s informal urban settlements, or even a particular tent in a refugee camp.

The what3words technology, which enables bidirectional conversion of each three-word address into latitude/longitude coordinates and vice-versa, is used in over 170 countries. The London-based firm works with thousands of partners, including government agencies, NGOs and large businesses such as Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Airbnb, the UN and the Red Cross.

Since its launch in 2013, the technology has become an addressing standard for eight postal services, including those of Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Sint-Maarten and Mongolia. Unlike conventional addressing solutions, which typically take decades to implement and cost millions, the what3words geocoding system can be used immediately. That is because the system uses a limited database and can be accessed offline.

The what3words app is available in over 30 languages and free for individual users. The firm offers qualifying NGOs help in implementing the technology. As a result, what3words is increasingly used in the developing world. For example, it worked with the HumanTech Innovation Lab (HTiL) and Community Development Centre (CDC) to identify the buildings inhabited by over 100,000 people living in refugee settlements in Arua, Uganda. That enabled health workers to find people in need of medical services and to reach them quickly in emergencies.

In a similar project, the Gateway Health Institute, a South African non-profit organisation, uses what3words to assign addresses to thousands of homes in Durban township. The NGO has trained local ambulance drivers to use what3words to quickly reach patients, including pregnant women in difficulty. In addition, the system en­abled authorities to start health records for new mothers and babies. In places that have adopted what3words, the firm helps individuals to remember their own address by providing physical house signs containing the three words; it also supports local initiatives to distribute the signs.

The firm aims for its coding system to become a global addressing standard, so everyone – whether living in cities, on remote islands or even in tents on the Mongolian plains – has a simple and reliable address to be used as needed. For this to happen, organisations delivering products and services would need to adopt three-word addresses. This would make deliveries more efficient and environmentally friendlier, reduce pressure on crowded cities and help communities to become more resilient.

Among other benefits, a reliable addressing system would promote e-commerce by removing doubts about the precise destination of goods. That in turn could promote economic growth in developing countries, as well as providing equal access to services and opportunities. Beyond that, what3words could become a life-saver in disaster situations by providing precise information to emergency services, rescuers and providers of humanitarian aid.


Giles Rhys Jones is chief marketing officer at what3words.
What3words is available as a free app on iOS and Android and at map.what3words.com

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