///three.random.words: how tech is building a better address system

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In many areas, an address is a luxury. Around 75 percent of people in the world live in areas with inadequate, poor or no addressing system at all. Put another way, there are more than 4 billion people in the world who can't tell a delivery person where to send a pizza. Even people lucky enough to have an address are often given one that's so inaccurate or ambiguous that it's almost useless. 

"GPS coordinates are great for machines, but they're really hard for person-to-person communication. If you miss just one digit, you'll end up with a completely inaccurate location," Uyanga Munkhbold, what3words Mongolia Country Manager said. "With what3words you have a precise and easy way to have and share an address across the globe."

what3words is a London-based startup that has devised a deceptively simple, yet incredibly powerful way to give the entire world an address. The company's software divides the entire globe into 3-by-3 meter squares and assigns each a unique three-word address. If you live in a cave in Kandahar, you've now got an address whether you know it or not. Even the boat-people of the Tonlé Sap aren't left out, as the company mapped out lakes and oceans as well.  

An unaddressed Ulaanbaatar Ger District sprawls in the distance.

An unaddressed Ulaanbaatar Ger District sprawls in the distance.

The system makes giving someone your address as simple as saying (or texting) a three word string of nonsensical words. For example, I'm writing this in a coffee shop in Ulaanbaatar at ///acted.park.reclaimed. Incidentally, while I write this I can overhear four British tourists attempting to find a restaurant with an ambiguous address on Google Maps — I looked it up, and the what3words address is a much more manageable ///vase.slices.bordering.

what3words acts as a strong democratizing force. In many developing countries, the few places that do have addresses that actually function are in areas frequented by the monied elites. Fast growing suburbs, slums and rural villages are usually last to receive an address — if they ever get one at all. While you could probably find the coffee shop that I'm writing from on Google Maps, good luck finding someone's house in the city's sprawling Ger Districts where the majority of the city's population lives. The roughly 50 percent of Mongolians living outside Ulaanbaatar, many in the country's vast countryside, are another matter altogether. 

Uyanga Munkhbold, What3Words Mongolia Country Manager

Uyanga Munkhbold, What3Words Mongolia Country Manager

what3words is moving quickly in Mongolia, with the goal of having the service become the default address system for the country’s 2.2 million smartphone users — around 66 percent of the country. The company launched in 2013 in London and partnered with the Mongol Post, the country’s largest mail carrier, last year. Several months ago they opened an office in Ulaanbaatar and have been aggressively acquiring new users using what they describe as a B to B to C strategy. Basically, they are focusing on getting what3words addresses used by popular B to C companies here, who in turn provide incentives for individuals to adopt the technology. 

The push is in its infancy, but the company has made huge inroads. In addition to partnering with the postal service, big brands like Pizza Hut, KFC and RE/MAX are have adopted the addressing standard, as have popular local e-commerce sites like Shoppy.mn and Mild.mn. The doors of businesses big and small are adorned with stickers giving their what3words addresses, an initiative the company plans on expanding. Currently, the what3words app is Mongolia's number one navigation app in the App Store, beating Google Maps, and is among the top ten downloads overall.

The company sees itself providing the crucial missing link, enabling much of the world's population to participate in e-commerce.

An unaddressed Ger Camp at  ///inarguable.withheld.improbable

An unaddressed Ger Camp at ///inarguable.withheld.improbable

"In Mongolia, the e-commerce market is just taking off and we've found that e-commerce companies are extremely interested in the service," Munkhbold said. "what3words not only simplifies the ordering process for the consumer, it makes delivery much more efficient. Instead of a delivery person driving around, wasting gas and time looking for an ambiguous address, they can simply search for the person's three word address on the free app."

what3words is pushing hard in Mongolia, but they’re active elsewhere in the world as well. The service operates in 14 different languages, 170 countries and they have partnered with seven national postal services so far, having recently struck a deal with Nigeria's postal service. 

The technology also has applications beyond the developing world. In areas where there is a functioning address system, what3words' pinpoint accuracy offers huge boosts in efficiency. Emergency services can be dispatched to locations without needing a numerical address, food can be delivered to hungry office workers in parks and public spaces, delivery drones will be able to drop their packages in pinpoint locations based on consumer preferences (i.e. the front door v.s. the roof or the backyard). 

In the States, the service is already being used in wildfire response and by police at the Super Bowl. Even Mercedes Benz is getting onboard and the company just became the first automobile manufacturer to include three word addresses as part of their onboard navigation system. Who knows, maybe in the not-too-distant future your delivery food will finally make its way to the right door while it's still warm. 

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Images via what3words.