There was an announcement recently that, while it doesn’t have world-spanning impact on its own, may herald what will be a global change in how physical locations addressed in the world: Cote d’Ivoire announced that it would be adopting what3words as its official postal address scheme, making it the second country to do so (Mongolia was the first).
what3words is a physical addressing scheme that divides the globe into tiles of three square meters and assigns a unique 3-word address to each. The words are regular English words; homophones and offensive terms are filtered out, and there is a 40,000 word master list from which the 57 trillion tiles that make up the earth’s surface (ocean areas included). Essentially what3words has assigned a set of mnemonics to numerical GPS coordinates, much in the same way as DNS assigns mnemonic domain names to numeric IP addresses.
To understand the amazing potential of what this can accomplish, let’s look at the first national adopter of what3words, the Mongolian postal service. Much of Mongolia is open steppe, an endless horizon of rolling grassland for which words cannot convey the sense of immensity, and much of the population still lives out on the steppe — I had the privilege of visiting in 2006; the vista cannot possibly be captured on film and will remain with me for the rest of my life. Getting from one place to the next is not difficult, either by vehicle or, more traditionally, on horseback; so much so that the network of roads that developed in many countries over the prior two centuries was neither required nor particularly desired. Imagine the challenge, then, of trying to send a parcel to someone living on the steppe. But with a what3words address, everyone living on the steppe is now easily locatable, allowing them to communicate by post, participate in e-commerce, and start businesses that, prior to this innovation, would have been logistically impossible for them to operate from their homes.what3words started up in 2013, and a number of travel concerns and NGO’s have adopted their addresses, but, it was the Mongolian announcement last year that first made me aware of them, and I have been watching them since. The potential of this solution is enormous, for global logistics, for financial inclusion, and even for more diverse and trivial use cases like finding friends and family at large music festivals, theme parks, or sporting events. Most startups fail though, and while the Mongolian use case was a key success (and an obvious win given Mongolia’s unique geographical challenges), to me one of the key indicators that what3names might actually succeed was adoption by a second, preferably African, country. If the Cote d’Ivoire adoption succeeds, as I believe it is likely to, I could see any number of African countries with similar challenges (e.g. entire villages with no postal address) adopting it in rapid succession.
If this takes off, the impact cannot be overstated. Everything else we are trying to accomplish in fighting poverty and improving the human condition – financial inclusion, educational access, universal broadband, targeted humanitarian aid — will become that much easier.
Oh, and if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of belong.enjoyable.delay, do feel free to drop by for a cup of coffee and a chat.
The CNN article on Cote d’Ivoire that appeared today:
You can visit the what3words site itself and find your own three word address at:
The mobile app (free) is available on from the Apple App Store and Google Play: