Ivory Coast is changing all its addresses to three-word phrases

“Uh oh, was the second word ‘smoked’ or ‘smoker’?”
“Uh oh, was the second word ‘smoked’ or ‘smoker’?”
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney
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Ivory Coast is following in the footsteps of Mongolia by adding a new three-word addressing method to its postal system. Letter writers can use a three-word phrase on an envelope instead of a street address.

British startup What3Words, is providing Ivory Coast’s postal operator, La Poste, with the new system. What3Words also supplies Mongolia. Both countries face similar problems when it comes to getting things delivered: insufficient street addresses. “Cote d’Ivoire has an incomplete address system; whilst some roads have names and numbers, the vast majority across the country don’t,” says Isaac Gnamba-Yao, La Poste’s chief executive.

The addressing system is so incomplete that a postal address is a “luxury,” Gnamba-Yao told the BBC. Instead, most mail is delivered to PO boxes rented from La Poste for collection, a “workaround” that can’t be scaled, he said.

The What3Words system generates a unique three-word phrase for every nine square meters on earth. For instance, La Poste’s office address would be toned.witty.lion in the three-word system instead of its street address which is: BP 641 Cidex 3 Abidjan, Abidjan Plateau, Avenue Bvd Mitterrand.

Ordinary Ivorians will have to look up a three-word address using La Poste’s free app. They can then write that address on an envelope and La Poste can convert that to GPS coordinates to be delivered. Gnamba-Yao says an extensive communications campaign is being devised to ensure people understand how to use the three-word system. This includes putting up physical signs in rural parts of the country, getting e-commerce firms, like Afrimarket, to use three-word addresses on checkout pages, and—naturally—through direct mail and leaflets.

What3Words makes money from these deals by licensing software that converts three-word addresses into GPS coordinates. Critics say that it’s a bad idea for national postal systems to be so dependant on a proprietary addressing system.

For instance, What3Words licensing terms prevents all sorts of activities that involve the automated extraction and publication of data from its database, including surveying an area after a natural disaster, or collecting census data, as Leigh Dodds, a British open data consultant, has pointed out. A user couldn’t connect to the What3Words database and scrape its data, example. 

What3Words says the Red Cross and the United Nations already use its system in disaster relief situations, and they don’t violate its terms because they don’t republish the data in bulk. The perils of a proprietary database were made apparent to the British government, which is spending millions to rebuild a postcode registry after the national postal provider, Royal Mail, was privatized and took the original database with it.

While open-data advocates say national postal systems are making a mistake by using a proprietary addressing system, La Poste’s Gnamba-Yao is untroubled. “There are plenty of examples of private and government partnerships in place all over the world, this is not new,” he says. “The way the What3Words agreement is constructed gives us control over the technology that we are very happy with, and provides us a sustainable model to move forwards into the future.”

Perhaps most importantly to Gnamba-Yao and Ivory Coast’s population of over 22 million people, the three-word system just works. “What3Words provides an immediate solution for us,” he says.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said What3Words’ licensing terms prevent it from being used in mapping disaster areas; its terms prevent the automated extraction and republication of its data in bulk.