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The concept of the “address” is younger than you probably think. Numbering buildings only really became popular in the 18th century. Up until then, landmarks, smells and sounds were used to navigate neighborhoods. After all, most people lived in the same town their whole lives and only needed to remember a few of their favorite spots.
Of course, the way in which addresses were designed and introduced differs between countries, but the general idea was the same - give buildings a number so people can find them. But what about all those in-between places, like your fav lookout point, or that big rock you love to have lunch on in the park? Instead of giving your friends convoluted directions to your picnic blanket, it might be easier if your picnic blanket had an address. Well, now it does...
In 2013, Chris Sheldrick and Jack Waley-Cohen created a website called What3Words. They sectioned the entire globe into three-meter squares and assigned each square three random words. For example, atom, aware, chair is the stage at the Sydney Opera House, and blisters, napped, sprite is the summit of Mount Everest. The goal was to create a system that would help people pinpoint very specific locations, like hard-to-find entrances to buildings or unmarked areas in the wild. As the company grew, it attracted the attention of the UK’s emergency services, which now uses the app to locate callers who don’t know where they are. A rather dramatic incident played out in the Himalayas when a woman hit her head during a trek near Everest Base Camp. Her husband called the emergency services listed on their travel insurance documents, told the dispatcher their three-word address, and a helicopter was sent to fetch them!
However, there are concerns about whether a tech firm should have control over an application that so many rely on - especially in emergencies. For example, the app supports 37 languages, which means each square has 37 different ‘addresses’. What if you give three words in one language and the person on the other end of the phone doesn't understand them? Also, the terms and conditions of private companies don't always have the user’s best interests in mind (#facebook). For these reasons, numbered coordinates may always remain the most neutral solution, despite being long and somewhat clunky to remember.
Perhaps this entire endeavor is a reminder that the system of the address is still young - its form and function may go through several iterations as societies and needs change.
'Life-saving app' divides opinion
Image by Nick Seagrave