Opinion by Bart Perkins

Mapping: Disruption ahead!

What3Words brilliantly streamlines mapping but will require oversight if it becomes a government standard

winkel triple projection world map
Credit: Strebe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

Have you ever sent a package to a remote part of the world that lacks a consistent set of physical addresses? Unless your organization specializes in logistics and distribution, you probably outsourced the task to a company that does. At a more personal level, have you gone to one door at a concert when the friend with the tickets went to a different door? Have you tried to find a tourist attraction known by its name but lacking a street address? These situations highlight the importance of better ways to identify and find specific locations.

According to the United Nations Development Postal Union, an address is “part of a person’s identity.” Roughly 4 billion people have no good way to describe where they live, making it difficult to receive deliveries, access social services or report a crime, fire, or other emergency. As the population of informal urban settlements explodes, it becomes virtually impossible to locate individuals within these communities. The same problem exists in remote areas that lack a formal postal addressing system.

What3Words (W3W), a London company, has developed a better solution. It overlays a grid of three-meter-by-three-meter squares on the globe. Each square is assigned a unique three-word identifier that is mapped to a precise latitude and longitude. The words are chosen from a database that has been carefully culled to eliminate homonyms and potentially offensive words (across cultures.) W3W enables consumers, businesses and governments to use the three words instead of the usual street address. While there are alternate solutions such as Mapcodes, GPS coordinates and military grid reference systems, the three-word combinations are easier to remember.

W3W augments, but does not replace, street addresses. W3W addressing is more precise than street addresses because most front doors and side doors are in different squares and therefore have different three-word identifiers. While this is less important in residential situations, it can be critical to anyone attempting to find the correct door in a large building. For driving directions, the W3W app feeds the three-word combinations directly into Google Maps, Waze, Scout and other navigation services.

W3W is being adopted in a variety of countries. Mongolia’s national post office is migrating to the W3W system, since few of its streets have names and the country is sparsely populated, with large, uninhabited areas. Moreover, roughly one quarter of the inhabitants are nomads, making mail delivery even more difficult. La Poste Côte d'Ivoire is also adopting the W3W system because there are few street addresses and many people rely on informal descriptions (such as “between the gas station and the Blue Dog Café”) to describe a location. Norway, Mali, France and Switzerland are building W3W into their addressing systems to increase accuracy.

The W3W app is helpful in emergencies and other special situations. It was used to coordinate first responders at the Super Bowl and at Glastonbury. If a hiker gets lost but has a smartphone connection, he can use the app to determine his position and send the three words to the rescue team. Courier companies are using W3W in time-sensitive situations such as transporting organs for transplant. Drone companies are evaluating it as a tool to improve navigation. The tool is useful in cities that reuse variations on street names. Atlanta has 71 streets that contain some version of Peachtree in the name. Mexico City is even more challenging, with 632 Juarez streets, 624 Hidalgo streets and at least 500 streets named Zapata.

Better mapping and addressing software makes consumers, businesses and government services more efficient. The U.S. Post Office states that 23% of all mail contains addressing errors. These errors create extra work for the post office and sometimes result in returned mail or mail that is delivered to the wrong address. During the 2015 holidays, U.K. consumers wasted 11.8 million hours addressing 4.8 million delivery problems.

W3W uses a common business model that allows consumers free use but charges businesses for access. The model gets troublesome when it becomes critical to the operation of the postal service. Having any for-profit entity at the center of a critical public function with no competition is at best unwise.

Addresses are bits of public infrastructure that convey a great deal of information. Street addresses announce both the country and the municipality. Street numbers usually convey information about the position of one address relative to a different address. Because W3W’s three words are random by design, they convey no information about the country or city, much less street address. While conventional addresses will not disappear anytime soon, as the three words become more embedded in the postal service, W3W will become ever more critical to the way government services are delivered.

Unfortunately, the W3W license prohibits the database with the three-word strings and the corresponding latitude/longitude from being published. If the system is to be adopted by postal services or other government entities, there needs to be an arrangement whereby the database is readily available at no or low charge to the public, businesses and the government.

The W3W team needs to be rewarded for a very creative solution to a difficult problem. In addition, as their system is more broadly adopted, some type of governance will be needed. (While the current management team undoubtedly has noble intentions, perspectives can change as companies grow; people leave, agendas clash, and companies get acquired.) Perhaps W3W could be treated as a public utility with a commission to establish the rates the utility can charge. Perhaps W3W could agree to operate for some period of time and then sell to a consortium of governments which then put the database in the public domain. Undoubtedly there are other approaches that could compensate the W3W team while protecting public interest.

W3W is a potentially disruptive tool that makes it significantly easier to find specific locations. In addition to assisting postal services and consumers, the tool can be leveraged by a variety of businesses, including self-driving vehicle companies, courier services, distribution companies, taxi services, any organization with its own fleet and a host of others. IT professionals need to follow W3W closely as it evolves over the next few years. Every company that uses physical or mailing addresses will need to update systems to accommodate the W3W format. After that, if you get lost, it’s your own fault!

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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