Sending a letter to Mongolia? Three words will get it there

No matter where you are on the earth, three words can find you. It’s not GPS, helpful as that might be. This is an app and website called What3Words, and it has divided the world into squares that are 3 metres by 3 metres. Each square has three words that describe it.

And a great many businesses, rescue services around the world, and even refugee camps are finding it very useful indeed. It can save your life; it can make sure your groceries arrive at your house, and it can help you identify where your tent is located in the refugee camp.

Since 2018, for example, everyone has found it much easier to navigate the Rhino Refugee Camp in Arua, Uganda, which is home to more than 116,000 people, because it’s now been mapped through a project called Addressing Beautiful Arua.

What3words worked with the HumanTech Innovation Lab (HTiL) and the Community Development Centre (CDC) to record three word addresses for each home, church, mosque, medical centre and food distribution point. This gives everyone living, volunteering and working in the Arua district the same benefits of fixed addressing as people who live in cities. 

“Once people in the Rhino Camp know their 3 word address, they have an easy way to talk about where they live. A 3 word address is easy to communicate face to face, or in a phone call, so a personal smartphone isn’t necessary to benefit from their 3 word address. It is the easiest way for health workers to find people to deliver medical services, and to locate them quickly in an emergency. The 50,000 buildings in the settlement, with their corresponding 3 word addresses, can also be viewed online by the authorities via ArcGIS, helping further assess the growth of the camp and assistance and maintenance needs across the district.” The next step is to produce permanent three-word signage for each building.

“What3Words seeks to encourage such solutions, by making the app free to charities, development agencies and emergency services,” Positive News writes in a recent article. The United Nations has made the app part of its own disaster-response tracking system. Commercial users must buy a licence to integrate the software into their systems.

It’s now available in 47 languages, from Afrikaans and Arabic to Malayalam and Mongolian, says Positive News. Mongolia’s postal service just became the first in the world to officially adopt the word-based address service.

Not having an address can be problematic. How do you register to vote, register births, marriages, and deaths, or apply for government benefits if you don’t have an address?

And how do you tell people where you are, in case of an emergency, if where you are happens to be in the middle of the wilderness?

The Singapore Police Force uses what3words so it can get help to people quickly, like two 14-year-old boys who got lost in the forest. They had no food or water and they were getting cold as evening drew near. When they called the police, they couldn’t describe where they were – but they had a phone. The SPR operator helped them use the app to see the three words for their exact location, and so they were rescued.

Try it out for yourself, and see what three words describe where you live.