With what3words, everyone on the planet finally has an address

Steven Ramage, director of strategy at what3words, a UK company that has designed a novel solution to the problem of street addressing. (New Cities Foundation)

This week, Citiscope is looking at three startups and social enterprises that are using technology to make cities work better. All spoke at the New Cities Foundation’s recent conference in Montréal. Read the other profiles here

Even in those cities where streets have names and buildings have numbers on them, addressing systems have flaws. Couriers and postal services waste time and money chasing after hard-to-reach locations. Physical addresses can be useless when giving directions to large buildings, campuses or even city parks. And in countries like Japan, where many streets don’t have names and buildings aren’t numbered sequentially, addresses can be more confusing than helpful.

“But these are first-world problems,” points out Steven Ramage, director of strategy at a company called what3words. “There’s something like 145 or more countries that have no address system or P. O. addressing.”

What3words estimates that 75 percent of the global population doesn’t have an official address. Beyond the ability to receive mail or order a pizza, the consequences can be dramatic. Opening a bank account, voting or seeking formal employment can be inaccessible to those who do not exist on official maps.

What3words co-founder Chris Sheldrick set out to tackle the problem out of frustration after 10 years working in the music industry. During that time, he often struggled with getting equipment delivered to venues with multiple entrances or having bands find their hotel in unknown cities. He tried working with GPS coordinates, but when a supplier inversed latitude and longitude and showed up at the wrong venue, Sheldrick thought there had to be a better way.

[Read: Where the streets now have names]

The UK-based company devised a new system that is both disarmingly simple and possibly revolutionary. What3words divided the entire surface of the planet into three-meter-square areas, and assigned each of them an address composed of three randomly generated words. The tip of the Eiffel Tower is located at “prices. slippery.traps”. To find the Tropical Zone at New York’s Central Park Zoo, head to “body. tables.facing”.

The Eiffel Tower’s address in what3words is “prices. slippery.traps”.

These addresses can be shared verbally, via email or social media, and quickly decoded into a physical location via the what3words website or mobile app. (Click here to explore the what3words map.) Additional languages are currently being added in beta versions. Offensive and uncommon words are left out to create addresses that are easy to remember.

The advantages are obvious for individual users in places with confusing addresses or no addresses at all. But the service truly unleashes its potential when integrated with existing services. Municipalities, courier companies, humanitarian agencies and makers of mapping software all have found benefits in using what3words. “The different challenges [the service] solves are much greater than what was originally envisioned,” says Ramage.

In Cape Town, for example, a social enterprise named Iyeza uses what3words to deliver medicine for chronic ailments to people living in townships. In Rio de Janeiro, the organization Carteiro Amigo runs a mail delivery service in the city’s informal areas, and is now running a pilot project using what3words in the city’s largest favela, Rocinha. And a Canada-based company named Camidus that helps governments deal with land rights uses the service for its land-tenure software.

Read: A Q&A with street addressing expert Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic]

Wealthier cities can benefit, too. “Even in the countries that are well-addressed, there are still issues around being able to do e-commerce delivery or logistics,” Ramage explains. “No country in the world has a perfect addressing system or solution. Municipalities can use the service to manage their assets, like benches or fire hydrants, or to access specific locations in their parks and coastlines.

A number of businesses have already jumped on board; Navmii, a UK-based traffic service and TripGo, an Australian company that helps users plan trips door-to-door by comparing transport modes, have both integrated what3words into their apps. Festival Medical Services, a UK charity providing first-aid services in large events, also relies on what3words to better locate emergencies in crowds. More recently, the government of Mongolia adopted what3words as its first official addressing system.

“We’re not trying to replace street addressing or landmarks. We’re trying to complement what’s already there,” Ramage explains. “And where nothing exists, then we provide a solution.”

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Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montréal who covers cities and international social issues. She is currently reporting on the economic impact of refugee crises through her project #RefugeeEconomics. Full bio

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