How do retailers deliver a parcel to a "favela" in Rio de Janeiro or an unlisted Kampala backstreet? With three quarters of the world having incomplete or inadequate addresses and about two thirds having no address at all, mail organisations and express delivery firms are facing an increasing problem in completing the "last mile".
In Dubai, India and many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, large parts of the cities have no street names and even in the UK, post codes don't always work.
Speaking at the recent World Mail & Express Conference & Exhibition in Brussels, organised by Triangle Management Services, the head of Business Development of UK-based "What3Words", Tim Williams presented an interesting and innovative solution for the address-deprived among us.
Dog. Cat. Stick
Instead of road names and zip codes, What3Words, which was launched in July 2013, has divided the earth into 57 trillion three-by-three meter squares and assigned each square a three word identifier, such as "dog. cat. stick". To do this, the company generated 57 trillion combinations of 40,000 English words, grouped together in threes -- hence the company name, What3Words. All of the three-word combinations refer to a 9m2 area.
Using Google Maps, Apple's Maps or Waze, this global mapping app can plot any three-word address and then navigates to the location. The system has meanwhile expanded into eight languages, including English French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Turkish, Swedish and Russian, while versions in Swahili, Greek and Arabic are being developed.
The app’s viability relies on mass adoption
"We give the shortest, most common words in a language to the towns and cities in the world where the language is spoken most, then the next "best" words to the rural areas in the world, then the most awkward, long words to the sea, where we are very unlikely to have users," Williams explained.
Williams acknowledged that the viability of the app relies on mass adoption, which will need the involvement of the biggest logistics and e-commerce companies in developing markets. This means that the likes of China's Alibaba or India's Flipkart, along with express delivery companies operating in those markets, would need to adopt the system.
In addition, consumers need to understand how the app works and educating a large proportion of the world in this new addressing system could be a huge task, admitted Williams.
However, he confronted his audience with the downside that, "for instance, in Tanzania there are no street addresses and it can take more than 1 hour to deliver one package. In the favelas in Rio it is the same situation and delivering express shipments was virtually impossible even by drivers with local experience, until "What3Words" assigned each square a three word identifier."
The app functions without a data connection, Williams said and he concluded by saying that: "What3Words solves a perpetual constraint in remote and unaddressed locations, and in areas with poor connectivity."
Nol van Fenema