What’s your address? For most readers of this blog, that is a pretty easy question to answer. You have a street name and a unique number. Throw in a postal code and maybe an apartment number, and you are good to go. For much of the world’s population, however, things aren’t so easy. Whether because they live in rural villages or poorly planned, rapidly growing cities, many people in developing nations don’t have a standard address. This creates a variety of problems. In particular, it cuts them off from many parts of modern commerce. How do you deliver a package to someone who can’t easily write down where they live? Note that this matters for a developing nation. If a country has an under-developed retail market, fostering an e-commerce industry is likely a better solution for many products than building out physical locations — but that cannot happen without some way of locating customers.
Solving this addressing problem is the goal of what3words, a start-up firm profiled in a recent BBC article (Giving everyone in the world an address, Apr 30). Their plan is to match every three-meter-by-three-meter square on the globe with a three-word triplet. Under this scheme, the house I grew up in becomes collapsed.networking.farm — which would only be better if it were collapsed.networking.firm.
The argument is that it is easier to remember three words than, say, a set of random numbers. The goal then is to come up with words that are simple and unambiguous to use. Here is how their website explains the process.
Each what3words language is powered by a wordlist of 25,000 dictionary words. The wordlists go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation.
Offensive words and homophones (sale & sail) have been removed. Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas and the longest words are used in 3 word addresses in unpopulated areas.
How does this play out in practice? Here is an example from the BBC article on how the system is being used.
The Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro contains the largest shanty town or favela in the country – the district of Rocinha, home to about 70,000 people.
Because of the haphazard way in which the area originally developed, its sprawling maze of lanes and alleys has never been subject to a proper system of addresses.
But a local company, Grupo Carteiro Amigo (or in English, Friendly Postman Group), has found ways of overcoming that handicap.
Founded in the year 2000, the firm says its aim is “to give residents back one of their basic rights” – that is, to have things sent to them by post.
The Brazilian postal system has no obligation to provide a full service in the area, so Carteiro Amigo set up its own system. Now 4,000 families in the favela pay 18 reais (£4; $6) a month to have letters and parcels delivered to them.
So this is just the sort of service the un-addressed need. Carteiro Amigo can connect the favela to modern commerce and what3words makes Carteiro Amigo’s job a lot easier.
There two question to answer. First, how is what3words making money? The answer is that firms like Carteiro Amigo pay a licensing fee while consumers have free access.
The second question is whether those of us with conventional address are ever likely to be getting packages delivered to our personal three words. I am not so sure about that. Take a look at the graphic above. It depicts a slice of London and demonstrates one of the challenges of the what3words systems: neighboring squares are given completely unrelated names. In some ways this is a virtue. Inverting word order, for example, gives a clear signal that something is off (collapsed.networking.farm is in New Hampshire while farm.networking.collapsed is in Oregon) while inverting a house number of a conventional address can lead to packages going astray. But if you know the local address conventions, the logical link between address is very helpful. Where I live now, I know that 15th St is eleven blocks west of 4th St and I know how far my kids are biking when they are going to a friend’s house. That is very convenient and I cannot imagine that people will give up on it that easily.