Where The Streets Have No Name

A computer-generated drawing based on a photograph from a typical street in Saragossa, in Spain. Image: NaturPhilosophieAddressing the World

About four billion people on our planet actually live in places with no house numbers,  no street names, or without anything that constitutes a proper address.  They are effectively off-the-map, with no voting rights or access to public utilities.  A new company called What3Words proposes to revolutionise that…

Without an address, you are literally off the map.  You will not receive any mail, or have the right to vote – let alone being able to apply for a bank loan, or run a business.  But what if you could pinpoint a location – any location – on Earth with just three simple words?

A new start-up business What3Words.com has divided up the globe into 57 trillion 3 x 3 metres squares – each square identifiable by a unique combination of three randomly generated words.

 

A photomontage showing a left hand holding a smartphone, which can be used to pinpoint the precise location of a remote well in the Saharan desert, seen here in the background.
Pinpointing the exact location of a remote well in the Sahara desert with What3Words.

Lost in the Sticks?

Most of those living in Africa, Asia and South America currently face the problem of being without an address.  In the past, countries without a proper set of addresses have tried to change facts on the ground by mapping out the area, and emulating the developed world’s way of doing things, such as adding street names and numbers.  However, that process can take a decade.

Countries like Ghana have tried it unsuccessfully, with some properties ending up with as many as five different addresses stamped on them!

Of course, existing co-ordinates of latitude and longitude and the Global Positioning System (GPS) used by sat-nav technology, already provide a way of pinning down any location in the World.  But it is not human-friendly and errors can creep in.  The system offers to bridge the gap between inaccurate postcodes and accurate-though-complicated GPS co-ordinates.

Although most people still have to embrace the idea and apply it, the What3Words system is likely to prove a useful way of getting on the local authorities’ radar in places where people have no other viable way of identifying where they live, especially as internet-based services pick up on it and build it into their systems.

The service is free to use for consumers and may be downloaded in app form, but companies pay to license the technology and incorporate it into their own products.  Individuals can also buy a single word to represent a precise location, making addresses even simpler to remember.

 

A What3words screenshot of the grid diagram for the Hyde Park area in London, in the United Kingdom.
What3Words Diagram for the Hyde Park area of London

From the City to Brazilian favelas…

What3Words‘ platform is already being used by Australian emergency services, and there is great potential for the vast rural expanses of Africa and the Middle East, where street addresses often do not exist.

The idea is already bearing fruit in some parts of the World.  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 way in which the area 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 (in English, Friendly Postman Group), has found ways of overcoming that handicap and aims to give residents back one of their most basic rights.

I edited this article from what3words address:

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How very appropriate for a physical science website!