For years, delivering mail in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro was a headache. To understand why, try zooming in on this Google Map of the 70,000-person community in southeast Rio de Janeiro:
Google Maps shows a handful of streets, but there are actually thousands of paths throughout the favela. Zoom in as close as you can, and you still won’t see them — and certainly no house numbers.
That’s because the physical structure of the favelas is in constant flux. Buildings are constantly growing up and out, while residents and businesses move in and out. This disorder is also what makes favelas so visually striking:
For decades, the physical flux of the favelas made it impossible for an emerging middle class to participate in commerce.
“The Brazilian government is not required to give people addresses there, so they don’t,” says Giles Rhys Jones. “Yet these people are emerging middle class, they have disposable income, they have Internet connections; they just can’t [get] things delivered to them.”“[T]hese people are emerging middle class, they have disposable income, they have Internet connections; they just can’t [get] things delivered to them.”
Jones works for what3words, a mapping startup that wants to give an address to every place in the world. The company has been working in the Rocinha and Rio’s other favelas for several years. They got involved when a local delivery service called Carteiro Amigo, or Friendly Mailman, discovered the app.
Friendly Mailman’s system was crude, but effective. Employees made descriptive maps of the favela based on descriptions of the landscape. If something changed in a neighborhood, the company could still find a residence based on what hadn’t changed. In a 2014 profile, Vice described the Friendly Mailman’s system as basically dizzying:
Without a visual image, they created a pseudo-code, an informal language of categories to explain each fixed structure, natural or built, which is on each street, stairs, or alley inside the huge Rocinha community. For example, a “condominium” is defined as a blind alley with less than 12 homes.
A typical sequence goes like this: “Wall, stone, henhouse, store, house, building, condominium,” Pedro explains. Each one of these concepts has the same specific definition that makes their work easier. “Rocinha is constantly under construction,” he adds. “It is possible that a month from now a henhouse is gone and there is a house there instead. For this reason we need to register everything; it’s easier to make changes when we need to.”
But an address system that can only be understood by the people who came up with it isn’t as helpful as one that can be understood by everyone. So when the folks at Friendly Mailman discovered What3Words, they were hooked.
What3words is premised on the idea that you can break the entire globe into small squares, assign each square a three-word name, and then cross-reference those squares with latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. The three words–which are specific to the language of the people using them–make the addresses memorable and easy to communicate, while the coordinates locate the square in the real world. You can see what three words are assigned to your address with their tool:
According to Jones, Friendly Mailman modernized their system by giving every participating Rocinha resident a three-word address in Portuguese. That address goes on a sticker, which residents put on their door, and in the address line when they order packages and receive mail. Then Friendly Mailman uses the what3words apps to find those homes in the favelas.
For residents of modernized, first-world cities, what3words probably seems unnecessary. But “everybody’s got a use case,” Jones said. Even New Yorkers.“Let’s say we live in one of the best addressed cities in the world with an amazing grid system, but we want to meet for lunch in Central Park. Where? By the big tree?”
“Let’s say we live in one of the best addressed cities in the world with an amazing grid system,” Jones said. “But we want to meet for lunch in Central Park. Where? By the big tree?”
With what3words, you could actually pick a specific three meter-by-three meter spot in the park. That big tree, for instance. But instead of saying, “The oak by the bench where the pigeon lady is,” you’d send your date a what3words address, which would show you exactly where to meet on a map.
If you can think of what3words not as a replacement for conventional first-world addressing, but as a way to be specific about every square inch of the planet, a lot more use cases are obvious. The company started as a way to help people navigate music festivals after the founders realized that GPS coordinates were easy to mix up and mess up. Today, it’s being used by the city of Denver to address its fire hydrants (more than 50,000), in Lake Tahoe for ski rescue, and by delivery companies in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.
And it’s seemingly perfect for poorer places because it doesn’t require Internet access. The whole app “is about 10 megabytes,” Jones says. “It’s not looking anything up. It doesn’t need a data connection. It just translates those long GPS coordinates into three simple words.
And unlike GPS, it’s hard to mix up a what3words address. “We use an algorithm to keep similar-sounding addresses very far apart,” Jones says. “‘Table chair lamp’ is in America and ‘table chair damp’ is in Australia.”
And in Rio, it was used over the last few weeks by favela residents and Olympics participants. “If you’re a national association or a government and you’ve got athletes and visitors in Rio, and there’s an incident of some sort, and they might need to direct security or a driver, they can now do that with a three-word address. First responders find it much easier to shout out a three-word address down the radio rather than a latitude/longitude address.”
It’s also important to note what what3words isn’t: “We’re not a navigation system, we’re a point-reference system. We’re a way of talking about a location”–not how to get there. But that actually works to what3words’ advantage: They don’t need to beat Waze or Google Maps, they just need to be added to them. They’ve already been integrated into Duck Duck Go, a pro-privacy search engine that doesn’t record user behavior.“There are four billion people in the world who don’t have a home address. They can’t vote, they can’t get aid, and they don’t have rights, because they’re invisible to the state”
“There are four billion people in the world who don’t have a home address,” Jones says. “They can’t vote, they can’t get aid, and they don’t have rights, because they’re invisible to the state. We’re a commercial concern, but we also want to make the world a better place. If we can give those people an identity by giving them an address, that’s the first step.”