Saturday, February 25, 2017

Three Little Words

Remember when someone asked you to come by their house? Remember when they gave you an address and some rough sense of how to get there, like, "we live a mile behind the center of town, down the street from the 7-11?" Remember how you pulled out a map and used your finger to trace the best route from your place to theirs? Remember how you got lost, and had to pull into a gas station to say, "Hi there. Can you tell how to get to Cedar Lane?"

Ah, the good old days before GPS. You had to have some sense of north, south, east and west. You had to have a reasonably current map, and hope the grape juice stains and the torn crease didn't blot out the entrance to the highway. And you had to have a sense of adventure and courage to boldly blunder through dark side streets with no signs to find your destination. My, how times have changed. Now any directionally-challenged moron with smart phone has at least as good a chance of arriving on time as a bird colonel who aced officer training school.

But not so fast. GPS usually works fine when you plug in a given street address that's in the database. Yet sometimes that gets you close, but not there. Or perhaps the directions are more generalized, like when someone says "meet me in the park." Or maybe there's no street to have an address, a situation you find commonly around the world in less developed locales. In any of those situations, as the old saying goes, close isn't so good, and only really counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

That was the situation in Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago of 170 islands covering over 700,000 square kilometers of ocean. The nation's 103,000 residents primarily live on 36 islands with only a few named streets. That meant it was tough for Tonga Post to deliver the mail, with the result that addresses like "past the goat farm near the big tree" meant your Christmas card to Taulupe Taulava never made it. And that's why Tonga became the fourth nation in the world after Mongolia, Sint Maarten and Cote d'Ivoire to adopt a system called what3words.

The London-based company that invented what3words has divided the world up into 57 trillion 3-by-3 meter squares. Using their own special algorithm and a 40,000 word dictionary, they assign a unique three-word label to each square. A smartphone app decodes the actual grid location and lays it over a map, enabling much more specificity to a given location. So while the Empire State Building is located at 350 5th Avenue in New York, that address covers the better part of a city block. If I told you to meet me there, I would have to tell you which entrance on which street, or we could be standing around waiting for each other for a while. But if I told you to meet me at many.clots.cooks, you would know I would be standing on the 33rd street side about a quarter of the way down the block. Likewise, if I said I would be at advice.fats.couple, you would look for me at the end of the building on 34th street, right near the DanceSport store.

While the system works just fine, thank you, the major criticism is that in adopting it a country is ceding control of identifying public infrastructure to a private company. And that goes against the open-source transparency that we say we want. It's as if in order to start up a business or get credit we have to be given approval by some private company. But in point of fact we already have that in the form of Dun and Bradstreet business ID's, or credit scores from Equifax. In Tonga's case, the trade-off was worth it, or else Dopeti Paumalolo who lives "past the turtle pond in the shade of the third date palm" might never get his new slow cooker from Amazon.

Will what3words catch on elsewhere? Time will tell. But in a world of big data where every tiny bit if information is worth something, perhaps being able to differentiate between the front corner of your house and the top of the driveway will be worth something. In fact, I'd love to chat about it. Meet me at my favorite table at hound.sharpening.outgrown and we can discuss it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has always been fascinated with maps. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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