Peruvian economist Fernando de Soto succinctly identified a problem which most of us in the developed world don’t think of as much of a problem at all: “Without the address you live outside the law,” de Soto said, “You might as well not exist.” In megalopolises like Guayaquil and Karachi, which have expanded with practically no government oversight at all, streets lack names and houses numbers; this is true, too, in rural villages in the developing world. But there are even parts of the United States where people can’t easily be located, either because they live in remote areas or else because the street they live on has the same name as another street in the same city. Many locations have never had any addresses at all, but traditionally are identified by landmarks. (Turn right at the church and go five kilometers until you come to the park.)Even supposedly fixed addresses don’t necessarily stay fixed when political winds shift. After East Germany’s collapse, street and place names that honored Communist officials and Third World Marxist heroes disappeared virtually overnight; Leipzig no longer has a Ho-Chi-Minh-Strasse and in Dresden, Salvador-Allende-Platz reverted to its old name, Munchner Platz.
An efficient address system is harder to impose or maintain than you’d think; it’s estimated that there are 135 countries with systems that are inconsistent, overly complicated or simply inadequate. In Ghana, for example, the government spent millions of dollars, trying out one address system after another over the course of a decade, only to find that none of them worked.
Needless to say, the lack of an address can be a headache for postal and delivery services. UPS loses millions of dollars a year because its drivers have to waste time searching for an address. But having no address is more than an inconvenience; it often means that the people living ‘outside the law’ can’t register to vote or open a bank account. Medical personnel and police may not be able to reach people in time because they can’t find them. Access to health services and government benefits becomes more difficult for residents to obtain. Without an address to identify who’s living where, governments have trouble collecting taxes and businesses miss potential customers because they don’t know they exist.
Before British entrepreneur Chris Sheldrick found his mission providing addresses to those who lack them, he was in the music business, booking bands around the world. But he realized that there was a problem when his bands couldn’t get to their gigs because they were confused about where they were supposed to go. He tried to distribute GPS coordinates to clients, but that wasn’t very efficient, either. His bands still got lost. You might think that Google would have solved the problem by now.
A simple solution occurred to Sheldrick: smartphones. Smartphones are proliferating like crazy in the developing world. A smartphone always knows where you are. Why wait for a government to assign their citizens an address when they already have it in their hands?
Latitude and longitude are reliable and accurate indicators of location, of course, but who can easily remember the coordinates when they’re looking for a house at 38 degrees 52 minutes and 45.1128 seconds latitude and -76 minutes, 58 minutes and 54.6378 seconds? (That’s the location of the White House, by the way.) A more convenient method was needed. “We exploited a fact in the dictionary and the human mind,” Sheldrick said recently at the Quartz conference
in New York. His team carved out the entire landmass of the world into a grid of three-by-three meter squares, then derived a unique code that could be applied to each square. The code consists of three random words. “Our technology hinges on the human brain,” Sheldrick says. “Everyone can remember three words.” The result was a smartphone app called What3Words.
The app can be downloaded for free and is currently available in nine languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Russian, German, Turkish and Swedish with Italian, Greek, and Arabic on the way. The app identifies the language of the user automatically. The word combinations for each location differ from language to language – they’re not translations.
Surprisingly, all you need to designate the 57 trillion squares of the grid in all languages are 40,000 three word combinations, excluding offensive words and homonyms. The algorithm that generates the words takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, ease of spelling and pronunciation.
Once users download the app they simply have to choose a location on a map and the app will provide a three-word code that links to its GPS coordinates. (By contrast, to identify precise GPS coordinates you’d have to remember 18 digits.) “Casino.coach.bike,” for instance, specifies a spot by the lion sculpture at the southwest side of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar square. The address code will still work even if you lose your mobile connection. (It can be stored in your device because the app takes up less than 10 megabytes of space.)
Since its introduction in 2013, the app has found a welcome reception in several places that need it the most including India, Tanzania and South Africa. A Brazilian service — Carteiro Amigo — uses the app to deliver packages in a favela in Rio de Janeiro that’s home to 70,000 people. Google Maps only shows 15 streets in the favela while What3Words shows addresses for more than 3,000! Meanwhile, the Brazilian Post Office lags way behind as it struggles to compile an address database manually.
The benefits of having an address are hard to underestimate. “People can open a bank account more easily because they can describe where they live,” Sheldrick told The Guardian “If people need to get aid, the authorities and NGOs will know where they live. They can register with a doctor. Their children’s schools will know where they live. People can get anything delivered by anybody because they’ve got a way of referencing their location.”
The app can even be used by hikers who get lost in the middle of the woods.
The app is seen as especially valuable in the event of a disaster — an earthquake or flood, for instance — where whole towns and villages are leveled and shops and houses are turned into rubble. With What3Words, emergency workers and NGOs will still be better able to track people even amid devastation. That explains why the app is built into a UN disaster plan.
What3Words, makes its money from businesses that use the app to find customers.
One day, Sheldrick says, only half-jokingly, amazon may use his app to deliver goods to homes by drone.
At this point he doesn’t see any major competition on the horizon. Other companies that have tried to give addresses to the address-less tend to use alphanumeric systems, but because most of them consist of at least ten characters, they haven’t gained much traction.
Sheldrick is willing to go out on a limb and predict that since the current street system almost everywhere in the world is “suboptimal,” it will become obsolete in an age of smartphones. Increasing adoption of What3Words “might alter the perception of what an address is.”