How to help end poverty? Give everyone an address

People struggle economically, because they don’t have a clear address

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When we talk about fighting poverty, it’s usually a discussion about access – to education, healthcare, clean water, microfinance, even mobile phones and the internet. These are tough hurdles to overcome, but at least we know the basics of how to make it happen. One obstacle, however, usually gets overlooked, even though it affects around four billion people around the world: people struggle economically, because they don’t have a clear address.

An address is not a nice-to-have. Without it, people struggle to stake a property claim, take out low-interest credit, run a successful business or simply become an active consumer. For companies, having customers or partners without an address means extra cost, lost time, and – when it comes to banking – an additional regulatory burden.

“Without an address, you live outside the law,” writes Hernando De Soto, the famous Peruvian development economist, in his book The Mystery of Capital. “You might as well not exist.”

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, just go to Google Maps and look at a township in South Africa, a slum in India or a favela in Brazil. The website will show you a few roads, surrounded by plenty of blank space. Now switch to satellite view, and you’ll discover a world bustling with activity, in unmapped houses and businesses along uncharted streets. Or check out Nairobi, Kenya; here maps will show you plenty of roads, but they all have no names.

So people have to get by with addresses like “500m from the roundabout on the Sunyani-Kumasi road,” “behind the Shell Filling Station,” “near the uncompleted building”, or “where there used to be three palm trees”. Qualifiers like this are common across the world.

Giving people addresses has an instant impact: suddenly, people can own land, make contracts, trade beyond their neighborhood, and become a bank customer. For developing countries, introducing an address system is seen as an important foundation of and kick-starter for economic growth.

Addressing the world isn’t easy, though. Even industrialized countries like Ireland and South Korea are currently struggling to roll out new address systems. And using GPS co-ordinates instead doesn’t really make sense, because while the system is precise, it’s also impractical. Would you be able to remember two sets of eight to 10 digits, plus a few letters, not just of where you live, but everywhere you go?

So to fight poverty, to enable growth, and to help high-growth countries (for example in the Middle East) to scale their economies, our world urgently needs a universal address system; let’s call it a common location language.
Any such common location language needs to meet five criteria. It needs to be scalable, global, multilingual, and easy to use and to work out-of-the-box.

I’ve seen the immediate impact that a good address system can have. Not long ago I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I visited a favela called Rocinha. Maps of the area will show you 10 to 15 roads. In reality, there are more than 3,000. Yes, it’s a tough place, but also full of economic ambition. Nearly half of the population, for example, are rich enough to own a flat-screen TV. However, economic development in Rocinha was stunted, because the favela was more or less without addresses – until now. By chance, a local co-operative – Carteiro Amigo – that delivers mail to residents, discovered the addressing solution developed by us at what3words.

We divided the world into 57 trillion squares, each three meters by three meters, and every square has a unique three word identifier, for example type.heat.sketch. It currently works in nine languages – from English to Swahili – and we are about to add another three.

To have an address, you don’t need to remember a long and complex alphanumeric combination, but just three everyday words.

Thanks to this common location language, Carteiro Amigo can now serve not only Rocinha much better, but also plans to roll out its service to many other favelas where Brazil’s official postal service does not operate.

Or take Tanzania, where the World Bank looks after 74,000 water points; clean water is crucial for the health of the local population, but maintaining the water points without an address system used to be expensive and time-consuming – until now, as every water point has a far simpler three word address which has been built into a project called Taarifa.

Also in Tanzania, a local bank was struggling to square micro finance with regulatory requirements, as many of its borrowers are living in houses that simply do not have an address. With what3words now available in Swahili, the bank can finally “address” its customers, making them and its compliance department happy.

On a global scale, giving an address to the unaddressed can have an enormous economic impact.

Just take the concept and apply it across the economic value chain. Small businesses suddenly will be able to trade beyond their neighborhood. Land reforms and assigning property rights will not require creating a huge new address system from scratch. The world’s emerging middle classes suddenly can tap into the benefits of ecommerce. And companies large and small will instantly receive the benefit of much more efficient supply chains.

Having a common location language will solve many other pressing problems as well. Just think of the recent earthquake in Nepal. The government, emergency services and international aid organizations needed to map the locations of the injured and needy, of collapsed buildings, of water points and food aid in an instant. What may be easy for the professionals gets extremely cumbersome when you have to co-ordinate the distinct addressing and mapping systems of many different organizations, or integrate teams of local volunteers that are not well-versed in disaster response.

I said at the beginning that solutions to fight poverty are all about access. But access – whether it’s to education or healthcare – depends on having an address. We can’t win this fight, if we fail to sort out one of the most fundamental problems: addressing the unaddressed.

This article was first published in the WEF Agenda Blog on June 11, 2015


Chris Sheldrick is Co-founder & CEO of what3words. Chris worked in the music business for 10 years, booking bands and managing production for events around the globe. Chris was constantly frustrated with suppliers not finding site entrances, and bands not finding their way from the hotel to their gigs. He tried distributing addresses and GPS co-ordinates for years but both failed him on numerous occasions – he was certain there was a better way: what3words was born.

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