The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Three-word addressing scheme adopted in Mongolia and Ivory Coast


About a year ago I posted a story about, a British start-up that came up with what looked to me like a true game-changer application that not only was incredibly cool, but which could actually improve the lot of many millions of people:

Here's the problem: hundreds of millions, and more likely several billion, of the world's people live in a world in which few or none of the places that are important in their lives—where they live, where they work, where they catch the bus, where their kids go to school, where they go for a drink or to watch the movies—has an "address," a unique and commonly understood designator indicating their actual physical location. Think of just the inhabitants of the slums and favelas in and around the great world mega-cities—Sao Paolo, Brazil; Mexico City; Shanghai; Istanbul; Mumbai; Jakarta, Indonesia … and multiply that many times over. And think of what it would be like to live in a world without addresses and how difficult (or impossible) it would be to get utility service or request an ambulance or report a crime or obtain public services or get a product delivered or start a business or open a school or call a meeting of your neighbors or find the voting booth you're supposed to go to . . .

The What3Words solution was, as I wrote last year, "to divide the Earth into squares three meters on a side and given a unique three-word name to each, using only common English words. So the Capitol Rotunda is in 'shall.spider.bake'; the Empire State Building in 'heaves.wipes.clay'; the Camp Nou, home of the world's greatest soccer team, FC Barcelona, is at 'comb.bombard.cooks'; the corner of Hollywood and Vine at 'gently.fears.lives,' etc. [You can play with their interactive map, which is surprisingly engaging, at the what3words website here." [An excellent essay by Frederic Filloux at MondayNote has more details, as does the website.]

It was, I thought, "worth keeping an eye on":

I've been wrong before, but I've also been right before—and this does seem like something of a game-changer to me. It all depends on standardization, of course—my telling you to come to the picnic tomorrow at calm.update.output only works if you and I share the dictionary (presumably, on our phones). But that's true for Internet addresses and names, too … and look how that worked out.

Many reader comments expressed skepticism—not unfairly, to be sure. But I have been keeping an eye on it (with the help of friends and colleague—thanks to Byron Walker and David Seidman for these most recent pointers), and over the past few months two countries—Mongolia and Ivory Coast—have adopted the What3Words scheme for their national postal services. [See here for the Mongolia story, here and here for Ivory Coast].

I realize that inasmuch as the American people have more or less declared that they basically don't give a rat's ass about people who live in Mongolia or Ivory Coast, this might not seem like such a big deal to many of you. But I'm pretty excited about it. It's a neat, out-of-the-box kind of idea, and it could make a real difference in the many places in the world where peoples' lives are really burdened by the absence of something those of us in the "first world" take for granted, viz., an effective street-addressing system.