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Mongolia Adopts Address System That Uses Three-Word Names

What3words’ geo-coding system divides the Earth’s surface into 57 trillion squares, and assigns each a unique, memorable string of names

(Chico Ferreira /Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Sure, there are occasional hiccups, but in the age of Google Maps and GPS, the current system of street names and addresses in the developed world works relatively well. But for the billions of people on Earth who live in rural areas, slums or sprawling urban areas, that system of addressing breaks down. It causes difficulties in receiving mail and packages, and there are bigger consequences as well. Not having an official address means that people have difficulty opening a bank account, getting electricity or just dealing with government bureaucracies.

Mongolia's 3 million citizens, a third of whom are nomadic, live in a country that is approximately the size of Western Europe. Needless to say, giving directions and delivering packages there can be a real nightmare. That’s why Mongol Post, the country’s postal service, recently adopted an addressing system created by the startup company what3words to help direct mail and parcels to its residents.

According to Joon Ian Wong at Quartz, instead of a street names and numbers, what3words divides the entire surface of the Earth into 57 trillion 3-meter by 3-meter squares. Each square is assigned a three-word phrase derived from an algorithm that uses a list of 40,000 words to create the geo-codes. In this system, the White House, for instance, is no longer 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but sulk.held.raves; Buckingham Palace is fence.gross.bats; the Taj Mahal is according.gloom.broads.

Rebecca Feng at Forbes points out that while latitude and longitude coordinates do much the same thing, the long strings of numbers are difficult to remember and can be easily screwed up. So far, what3words has created an app that works in 10 languages, with plans to add many more. The whole system only takes up about 5 megabytes of data, meaning that it fits on basic cell phones and mobile devices.

So far, the system has been used by Pollinate Energy to help bring electricity to India’s slums. In Mongolia, Feng says, the online site Mmarket.mn recently began using the system followed last month by the Mongol Post.

The system may also be useful for things like drone deliveries and locating people during natural disasters. It may even catch on in more developed areas. Earlier this year Direct Today Couriers, a company in the UK that delivers mainly to rural areas, put what3words to the test. They found that using the geo-coding system reduced their average of 30 undelivered packages per day to just four or five.

But Feng points out that getting users to adopt the system is not enough. For what3words to become a game-changer, the addresses need to eventually be legally recognized by governments.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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