October 17, 2017

PUBLISHED BY Tina Rosenberg

SOURCE The New York Times

(Image: Chris Sheldrick, founder of what3words, in London. LEVON BISS / THE FORBES COLLECTION, VIA GETTY IMAGES)

As a young reporter, I lived in Managua, Nicaragua. The city had been leveled by an earthquake in 1972 and never rebuilt. It was still a bit of a moonscape. It’s different now, but back then few streets had names and the houses had no addresses — not as we know them, anyway. If you needed to tell someone where you lived, you referenced well-known landmarks, for example: “two blocks south and 20 yards toward the lake from the giant tree.” Or worse, people would say “from where the giant tree used to be” — a tree that had been toppled in the earthquake.

I know what you’re thinking — if Managua had Domino’s Pizza back then, I would have won the 30-minutes-or-it’s-free challenge every time.

But I would have lost the challenge in which the ambulance tries to find me to get me to the hospital in time. Also the ones involving getting title to my land, signing up for electricity service or opening a bank account.

A fixed address matters — and in most countries, large numbers of homes don’t have one. Addresses don’t exist in the jumbles of self-built houses ringing most major cities in poor countries. Nomadic people have no way to describe where they’ve pitched their tents as they drive their livestock from place to place. Even permanent homes in some rural areas have no address.

I don’t remember my exact house in Managua, but the park in my neighborhood now has a fixed address: collar.senda.aire. My old house — wherever it is — has an address. Every house, park bench and patch of forest in the world does.

 Although they sound like they’re made by people playing with word refrigerator magnets, the addresses come from a four-year-old company based in London, Johannesburg and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and called what3words. It was founded by Chris Sheldrick, a bassoonist who went into the live music events business after suffering a hand injury. Sheldrick was frustrated by equipment going astray, suppliers coming to the wrong place and musicians failing to find the venue. (Note: That may not be the only reason bands show up late.) He started looking for a better way to communicate location.

What3words isn’t a navigation or route optimization program; it provides a precise, easy-to-convey location you can type or speak into navigation or route optimization software.

Sheldrick and his colleagues laid an imaginary 10-foot-by-10-foot grid over the entire planet, creating 57 trillion squares. Every location, of course, already has a unique address — its longitude and latitude. These are represented by a set of Global Positioning System coordinates, a string of numbers up to 18 digits long. (A GPS device is something else, a machine that uses the Global Positioning System to lead you to an address you input.) What3words simply assigns each grid square’s GPS coordinates a unique three-word address that’s easier to remember, type and say.

Read the full article oin The New York Times here.