The Current

How 3 words could put 4 billion people without addresses on the map

Our home address marks our place in the world - enabling us to get mail, services and to vote. But there is no fixed addressed for four billion people in the world living in urban slums. Until now.
As of July 1, Mongolia will become a global pioneer adopting we3words for their national postal system. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

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The United Nations estimates as many as four billion people live in places where there are no street names or numbers. And the simple lack of an address can have big consequences.

A U.K. tech startup has designed a solution for people who live off the map or do not have a reliable mailing address.

To try to solve that problem, the company what3words has assigned three metre squares a unique combination of three words — that act as an address.

Chris Sheldrick, co-founder and CEO of what3words tells The Current's Laura Lynch the formula.

"We've divided the world into three metre squares. So 57 trillion three metre squares and we have named every three metre square on the planet."

All the words are assigned randomly and Sheldrick says each address is unique. "There's enough combinations that you can literally label every three metres in the entire world with the unique three words, so that means it's far more easy to just be able to tell anyone where you want to go."

Here's an example:

If you want to visit the base of the CN tower, you'd head to ribs - grow - oatmeal. Those are the three words that represent that specific section of the world.

What three words make up your address? Find out here.

It may sound futuristic, but as of July 1, Mongolia is adopting we3words for its national postal system. So now if you want to send mail to the Canadian embassy there, its official address will be, listen - backpacks - motive.     

Approximately 60 per cent of the population of Ulan Bator live in settlements known as ger districts and in many cases residents have limited access to basic services such as water and sanitation. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Sheldrick says the addresses do work with GPS navigation by typing in the words into the app to get you to the exact three metre square you want to get to.

The random words used for addresses come from the English dictionary. But for non-English speakers, there are 10 other language versions.

Sheldrick explains that if you speak Spanish you can go anywhere in the world in three Spanish words.

"Borders aren't really the concern, it's more about being able to talk about anywhere in your own language as easy as possible," Sheldrick said.

The app works to search an address offline and online. You don't need wifi or data in the middle of the Canadian wilderness for your phone to pick up the GPS coordinates and convert them to the what3words grid location.

In many cases like in the Middle East, India, South East Asia and Latin America, Sheldrick tells Laura Lynch the government never builds a proper address system. 

"The UN says four billion people in the world who live without an address  and they say that three quarters of countries don't have a proper address system so this is a much bigger concern than most people are aware of," Sheldrick said.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post that includes Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic, a World Bank urban planner on how a postal address is key to development.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.