I recently had the opportunity to meet the what3words team when they came to Boston for a speaking engagement at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. What3words aspires to provide an innovative approach to street addresses. You may wonder why street addresses need innovation. In many parts of the world, especially in urban slums and very rural environments, it’s very difficult to provide an unambiguous address system. This makes providing mail delivery and other basic government services difficult for the population that most needs them. Giles Rhys Jones of what3words explains how their approach works and what it means for this population in need.
— Cathy Wissink, Director, Technology & Civic Engagement
Go to Bing Maps and take a look at a township in South Africa, a slum in India or a favela in Brazil. The website will show you a few roads, surrounded by plenty of blank space.
Now switch to satellite view, and you’ll discover teeming cityscapes, bustling with life in unmapped houses and businesses, along hundreds of uncharted streets. Or check out Nairobi, Kenya, where you will see many roads, but the streets have no names.
Yes, often these are places of shocking deprivation. However, they also hold huge economic potential, harboring an emerging middle class that is working hard to lift itself out of poverty.
Currently 50% of people who live in urban centers do not have a street address. By 2050, the world’s cities will absorb three billion people, at which point 70% of the planet will live in urban areas.
Keeping up with addressing in sprawling and constantly changing conurbations as they absorb more people is one of the greatest challenges facing today’s urban planners.
Hack the neighborhood
Without a basic address infrastructure effective and efficient urban growth is challenging. Yet to set up a national address system from scratch costs tens of millions and takes decades.
So people have to hack their neighborhoods: like the case of the bicycle courier who delivers medicines in a South African township, and draws his own maps to keep up with this sprawling and constantly changing settlement. It may be entrepreneurial, but it is not scalable.
No global system
We could use GPS co-ordinates, of course, but as they require us to remember two sets of eight to ten digits and some letters, they are too difficult to use for most people. So, although they have been available for years, they have never been used outside the professional geographic community.
A new approach
what3words is a address system based on a global grid of 3m x 3m squares. It uses an algorithmic engine similar to that of a coordinate system and has given each of the 57 trillion squares a pre-assigned and fixed address of three words.
The use of words means non-technical people can find any location accurately and communicate it more quickly, more easily and with less ambiguity than any other system. Words can easily be remembered, written, said, printed or shared digitally.
what3words is working with Carteiro Amigo, Friendly Postmen, a co-operative which uses its native app to give people three word addresses so that they can get mail and packages delivered.
It is also being used by the World Bank in Tanzania to map water points and to minimize typical address transcription errors with Swahili 3 words.
To date the system has users in over 170 countries and has been integrated into twenty-five other apps and services. The app also works with whatever navigation service you have on your device; simply converting 3 words back to the lat/long pairs that computers love so much.
An address for everyone
Our mission is to give everyone and everywhere a simple address.
To learn more about what3words, visit our website.
Giles Rhys Jones is the Marketing Director for what3words.