More than a postcode

WHEN you consider that Mongolia is a country roughly the same size as Western Europe but has just three million inhabitants – many of who live vast distances apart – it begins to make sense why there has never been a proper address system. Even in the capital Ulaanbaatar, where almost half of the population live, swathes of streets remain nameless.

When you don’t have a precise address, everything from receiving post, opening a bank account, setting up electricity, applying for a passport or registering to vote all become a trial. That’s why the country’s postal service, Mongol Post, two years ago adopted a pioneering new system that gives everyone from the businesswoman in Ulaanbaatar to the herder living in a ger on the edge of the Gobi desert, a usable address.

These new addresses aren’t comprised of numbers, PO boxes or codes. Rather, they’re made up of just three words. This atlas of random terms isn’t unique to Mongolia. The entire planet has been divided into 57 trillion three-by-three metres by what3words in 2013, with the British company deciding to use a unique three-word marker for each square. Want to go to the Burj Khalifa? You’ll find the entrance at perky.ember.escapes. How about the Eiffel Tower? That’d be evoked.tidy.love.

What3words co-founder Chris Sheldrick gave a speech about his poetic new coordinate system in 2015 at the “Summer Davos” in Dalian, China. When he mentioned that some four billion people around the world still don’t have an address – and that poor addressing hampers the development of nations – it hit home for Mongolian businessman Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt, who was in attendance.

“I listened to him talk about this new and disruptive idea for addresses and I thought it was something my country badly needed,” he recalls. “Mongolia is this place that has managed to avoid street names and zip codes well into the 21st Century, and it needed a break.”

Ganhuyag introduced himself to Sheldrick as the CEO of Ard Financial Group, which was gearing up to buy an ownership stake in Mongol Post. He invited Sheldrick to visit Mongolia and by the following year, the pair had pushed Mongol Post to implement the three-word address system across the country. Now, in 2018, Mongolia has become a showpiece to demonstrate the potential of the system to fill in countries’ infrastructural gaps. Not only has the project made it easier for residents to get credit cards and receive packages; it’s also been a boon for the country’s burgeoning tourism industry.

“The fact that Mongolia is so remote is a huge part of what makes the country special, but it does present challenges when trying to get around,” explains Megan Eaves, destination editor for North Asia at Lonely Planet. Spurred by the recent developments, the guidebook publisher incorporated what3words addresses into its latest guide to the country, inputting three-word directions for more than 1,000 points of interest. Eaves says it’s made the country easier to navigate than ever before.

After a successful rollout in Mongolia, seven additional countries: Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Kiribati, Nigeria, Solomon Islands, St Maarten and Tonga are now in various stages of adopting what3words into their postal services.

The system is by no means the first to come up with a better way of connecting digital and physical space. Mapcode, developed by TomTom in 2001, is a predecessor that makes every house on earth addressable by a short code of letters and numbers. Google came up with the comparable Open Location Code in 2014, and has recently sought to re-imagine its free Earth mapping service, weaving in storytelling and AI to free it from apps.

Each of these geocode systems has a similar goal: to make every location in the world addressable by replacing clunky latitude and longitude coordinates with something simpler, and cleaner. Yet industry experts like Steve Coast, founder of OpenStreetMap (the Wikipedia of the map world), have advocated for what3words because they see it as the only one of the pack that truly succeeds in making geocodes memorable.

The system’s co-founder, Sheldrick, isn’t your stereotypical entrepreneur. Before teaming up with a linguist and mathematician to build what3words he worked in the live music industry, organising bands to play at events – which is when the idea for a creative zoning system came to him.

“We always had a problem of musicians who couldn’t find the entrance to the event,” he says, noting that even in the developed world addresses can be duplicated, wrong, unspecific or simply not there for places like parks and fields (where many of his events took place). “The average musician is just really bad at typing in GPS coordinates without making an error, so we realised we needed a way to compress 16 digits into something that was not only very human but also memorable and easy to communicate.”

Quirky addresses like reform.speech.debate (that’s the British Houses of Parliament) may sound like something made up by kids with word refrigerator magnets. Yet, there’s actually an extremely complex algorithm behind this playful geographic poetry.

I listened to him talk about this new and disruptive idea for addresses and I thought it was something my country badly needed – Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt

What3words counts some 40,000 words in its vocabulary, covering both land and sea. It uses shorter words near population centres, removes negative words and homophones (like sail and sale), and relegates similar sets of words to very different locations to make mistakes blatantly obvious (table.chair.lamp is in Australia, while table.chair.damp is in the US). It also works with a range of linguists to adapt the vocabulary to new languages, of which there are currently 26 options.

Critics lament that what3words is a proprietary, closed system with a patented algorithm and terms and conditions spelling out all the things you can’t do with it. In a blog post widely shared within the tech community, Leigh Dodds of the Open Data Institute wrote that “the closed nature of the platform makes it a poor foundation for future growth… the keys to your dataset are tied up with the intellectual property and API licensing of a third party.” Sheldrick counters that being a business (and a heavily-funded one, at that) is the very thing that has allowed what3words to scale and acquire a solid user base, something its open-source predecessors have historically lacked.

What3words is free for the general public with a suite of web and mobile apps, the latter of which work offline. This makes it actionable for everyone from a policeman trying to locate a fellow officer to a gig-goer searching for her friends at a crowded concert. And while the company licenses its technology out to businesses for a profit, humanitarian groups like the Red Cross or bodies within the UN can freely tap into its tools to coordinate things like disaster relief (the latter adopted the what3words system for its disaster response and recovery app UN-ASIGN).

On the business side, what3words has teamed up with a number of global organisations, including Dubai-based delivery company Aramex. In a recent test of its system, two teams of drivers were asked to deliver 100 packages in two well-addressed Dubai neighbourhoods. Drivers using what3words addresses were found to be 42 per cent faster and drove a 22 per cent shorter route than their companions using normal street addresses. They also made zero phone calls to ascertain locations, compared to colleagues’ 25 calls.

Mercedes-Benz became the first automotive firm to integrate what3words voice navigation into its vehicles earlier this year, with four more companies poised to follow suit by 2019. In June, TomTom announced that it would incorporate the system into its navigation tools. The next targets: drones, taxi apps and self-driving cars.

When it launched five years ago, what3words seemed like little more than a collection of haikus sprawled across an invisible grid. Yet in 2018, its practical implications – both humanitarian and commercial – are finally coming to light. In another five years, it could well become a major.international.player – an address one might seek out in the remote wilds of Australia’s Northern Territory.

WORDS: Mark Johanson