According to the UN, billions of people still live without an address. The economist Hernando de Soto said, "Without an address, you live outside the law. You might as well not exist." I'm here to tell you how my team and I are trying to change that.
If you go to an online map and look at a favela in Brazil or a township in South Africa, you'll see a few streets but a lot of empty space. But if you flip to satellite view, there are thousands of people, homes and businesses in this vast, unmapped and unaddressed spaces. In Ghana's capital, Accra, there are numbers and letters scrawled onto the sides of walls, where they piloted address systems but not finished them. But these places, these unaddressed places, hold huge economic potential.
Here's why the issue of addressing stuck with me. I worked in the music business for 10 years, and what you may not know about the music world is that every day, people struggle with the problems of addressing. So from the musicians who have to find the gigs to the production companies who bring the equipment, everyone somehow always gets lost. We even had to add someone to our schedules who was the person you called when you thought you'd arrived but then realized you hadn't. And we had some pretty bad days, like in Italy, where a truck driver unloaded all the equipment an hour north of Rome, not an hour south of Rome, and a slightly worse day where a keyboard player called me and said, "Chris, don't panic, but we may have just sound-checked at the wrong people's wedding."
So not long after the fated Rome event, I chatted this through with a friend of mine who is a mathematician, and we thought it was a problem we could do something about. We thought, well, we could make a new system, but it shouldn't look like the old system. We agreed that addresses were bad. We knew we wanted something very precise, but GPS coordinates, latitude and longitude, were just too complicated.
So we divided the world into three-meter squares. The world divides into around 57 trillion three-meter squares, and we found that there are enough combinations of three dictionary words that we could name every three-meter square in the world uniquely with just three words. We used 40,000 words, so that's 40,000 cubed, 64 trillion combinations of three words, which is more than enough for the 57-trillion-odd three-meter squares, with a few spare. So that's exactly what we did. We divided the world into three-meter squares, gave each one a unique, three-word identifier — what we call a three-word address. So for example, right here, I'm standing at mustards.coupons.pinup,
but over here ... I'm standing at pinched. singularly.tutorial.
But we haven't just done this in English. We thought it was essential that people should be able to use this system in their own language. So far, we've built it into 14 languages, including French, Swahili and Arabic, and we're working on more now, like Xhosa, Zulu and Hindi.
But this idea can do a lot more than just get my musicians to their gigs on time. If the 75 percent of countries that struggle with reliable addressing started using three-word addresses, there's a stack of far more important applications. In Durban, South Africa, an NGO called Gateway Health have distributed 11,000 three-word address signs to their community, so the pregnant mothers, when they go into labor, can call the emergency services and tell them exactly where to pick them up from, because otherwise, the ambulances have often taken hours to find them. In Mongolia, the National Post Service have adopted the system and are now doing deliveries to many people's houses for the first time. The UN are using it to geotag photos in disaster zones so they can deliver aid to exactly the right place. Even Domino's Pizza are using it in the Caribbean, because they haven't been able to find customers' homes, but they really want to get their pizza to them while its still hot.
Shortly, you'll be able to get into a car, speak the three words, and the car will navigate you to that exact spot. In Africa, the continent has leapfrogged phone lines to go to mobile phones, bypassed traditional banks to go straight to mobile payments. We're really proud that the post services of three African countries — Nigeria, Djibouti and Côte d'Ivoire, have gone straight to adopting three-word addresses, which means that people in those countries have a really simple way to explain where they live, today.
For me, poor addressing was an annoying frustration, but for billions of people, it's a huge business inefficiency, severely hampers their infrastructure growth, and can cost lives. We're on a mission to change that, three words at a time.