Business Unusual

4 billion people still don't have addresses. 3 words can change that

The Extinction Timeline declared that by 2014 getting lost would be obsolete. Devices with location services would be so widespread that it would be harder to get lost than to be found.

That is partly true, but finding someone - or somewhere - has relied on two slightly outdated methods that don’t really work that well with humans:

Latitude and Longitude and GPS

A highly accurate means for locating any point on Earth, but almost impossible to remember. This is the address for the Primedia offices in Cape Town - -33.912720, 18.416497.

Mix up a number, read the numbers the wrong way around or forget a minus sign and your location can move by thousands of kilometres. (See the much simpler name below)


The idea of naming buildings is not new, but according to the United Nations there are still billions that don’t have one. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that the IEC was required to maintain a voters roll that included addresses which is not going to be easy as many informal areas have yet to be allocated one.

Mongolia has opted to add the new system.

Naming streets

You might not think there is a difference between a road and a street, but they have had specific meanings through history. Paths that were paved by the Romans during their expansion in Europe were called Via Strata (paved roads).

They were created to allow armies and their equipment to easily move to where they were needed. Stratos in ancient Greek is army.

Since then some have reserved streets to be used in urban settings while roads connect urban areas, but conventions vary widely. Japan never had names for most minor roads, they named the block that was surrounded by the roads. Over time the creation of published maps saw more areas following a similar convention to make sending and receiving post easier.

The Postal Service

Initially, it was reserved for government communications for distributing laws and communications to military outposts. The Romans were some of the first to allow citizens to use the system too.

Post offices were located along main routes and in towns and cities. When private deliveries began a numbering system was used.

The only real improvement in the last 200 years has been postal codes, which were also numbers (so not easy to remember when they were long), or number and letter combinations (which are not easy to remember).


The solution which does not use any of the previous ideas for locations divides the planet into 57 trillion squares. Each square is three metres by three metres and is allocated a three-word address.

The company is simply called What3Words.

To create all the squares you only need 40 000 words so simple, easy-to-spell-and-say words are selected.

The Primedia Cape Town offices cover an area with multiple 3x3 metres blocks so the chosen address could be while our Joburg offices are at vague.vocals.hang

It is can be fun seeing what the names for certain addresses are; Mossack Fontseca’s Panama offices are at bumps.stealing.terminal

They exist in multiple languages and don’t require you to replace your normal address, just add this new one.

Another benefit of the very local addresses is that if you were going to meet someone at a shopping mall, or a stadium, you can specify the exact location.

Because it covers the entire planet, it could make search and rescue options easier as precise locations can be communicated more easily.

The business model allows anyone to access the map for free, while options to navigate or integrate into business options are paid for to access the API.

It is being used here in South Africa by the already very innovative Sizwe Nzima who delivers medication by bicycle in Khayelitsha. There are many homes that don’t have formal addresses, so his Iyeza Express uses the three word grid. They are located at 19 Sixuxujikati Street in Khayelitsha and can also be reached by visiting packet.moves.youthful

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