What’s The Address? Three Little Words Can Tell You

GPS? What GPS? Three-word phrases could be a promising alternative to street names and house numbers in places where few people possess street addresses.

Shuzhen banner 2

AsianScientist (Jul. 21, 2016) – “It’s right next to the Toyota showroom, you can’t miss it.”

“No, it’s on the other side of the road, you need to turn around.”

“Keep going until you see the rice store, then turn left onto the small street.”

In Thailand, noodle shops are ubiquitous; noodle shops with street addresses, on the other hand, are not. On a recent trip there, I learned that tracking down famed noodle joints requires the following: at least an hour set aside for U-turns and detours; a native Thai speaker in the car with you to help consult locals; and lots of street snacks to tide you over until you finally stumble upon your bowl of happiness.

Of course, Thailand isn’t the only place where relying completely on Google Maps will leave you stranded. Globally, an estimated four billion people in 135 countries do not have reliable street addresses or postal codes. This can result in minor inconveniences, like remaining noodle-less long after lunchtime has ticked by.

But—especially in developing countries—it can also mean not being able to receive mail, basic utilities, aid, or emergency help.

Take Mongolia, one of the most world’s most sparsely-populated countries, for example. Thirty percent of its three million people are nomadic, and less than one percent have a street address. You can imagine the problems this creates for mail delivery—with only descriptive directions to guide couriers, many deliveries never reach their intended destinations. People often end up having to travel long distances from home to collect their mail at post office boxes.

Where the streets have no names

But these difficulties may soon become a thing of the past. Mongolia’s postal service is about to become the first in the world to adopt an innovative new addressing system that identifies locations using three-word phrases in place of street names and house numbers.

Devised by British startup what3words, here’s how the system works. Imagine the Earth’s surface as a huge grid divided into three-meter by three-meter squares—about 57 trillion of these in total. Each square is assigned a unique combination of three randomly selected words as its address. You can look yours up on the what3words map.

For example, Asian Scientist Magazine’s office address. Instead of 5 Toh Tuck Link, Singapore 596224, it becomes ‘dated.owner.monks.’

You might wonder if there are enough words for this to work. The answer is yes—just 40,000 words will generate about 64 trillion three-word combinations. The Oxford English Dictionary contains about 200,000 entries, so even after removing homophones (‘four’ and ‘for,’ as an example) and potentially offensive words, there are still plenty to spare.

The system is also available in an increasing number of languages, making it accessible to non-English speakers. For example, dated.owner.monks maps over to сушилка.пожить.седой in Russian, choca.resulta.haberlo in Spanish, and inancım.avcı.çöpte in Turkish. These are not translations, but a different combination of words in each language.

In Mongolia, people can use these word trios to address envelopes. They can also type them into the checkout pages of the country’s fast-growing online shopping portals. When a three-word address enters the postal system, it’s converted into GPS coordinates, which then guide the mailman to the correct doorstep.

While Mongolia is the first to implement the system on a national scale, what3words is already found many applications in public health and emergency response. It’s being used in Mozambique to monitor the effect of mosquito nets on malaria transmission; in Botswana to install solar panels that give remote locations access to energy; in the US to fight wildfires; and in Europe to coordinate medical services at large music festivals.

The power of words

While the system is based on GPS coordinates, it saves humans from having to deal with these long, unwieldy strings of numbers and letters—something best left to computers. Three words, on the other hand, are much easier for us to read and remember.

Still, because humans will make mistakes no matter what, there is some idiot-proofing built into the system. Very similar words refer to locations that are continents apart, so that typos and other errors will hopefully become apparent quite quickly. dates.owner.monks is just off the coast of Dorset in the UK, while dated.owners.monks is in Auckland, New Zealand—oceans away from Toh Tuck Link in Singapore. (That said, if you are as determined as this guy, this feature will not save you from yourself.)

It’s easy to imagine how this system could be useful even in big cities in the developed world. Since three words let you get even more specific than a street address, you could use them to navigate to the side entrance of a building, find your car in a sprawling parking garage, or tell your Uber driver exactly where to pick you up.

As for that elusive Thai noodle shop—sadly, I can’t remember where it is on the map, so I don’t know the three magic words that would lead me back to it. But I’m hoping they are something like slurp.yummy.soup. (Edit: Scratch that. slurp.yummy.soup is taken—by a spot right smack in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.)

This article is from a monthly column called The Bug Report. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist