Sunday, December 06, 2015

Outstanding Idea: What Are Its Chances?


I usually begin each blog post with a byline that states my location, such as Marathon.  Note above, today's byline is dangerous.soak.lodges, that my subject today.  A startup company called what3words has engineered an idea so brilliant that my jaw drops in awe.

The problem is addresses.  Postal addresses are national in character, and they carry all the baggage of many centuries of evolution.  British postal addresses in particular baffle me.  More important, what3words claims that 4 billion of the world's people have no address, and that cuts them off from many govermental and commercial benefits.  We have run into that ourselves trying to asssert that we are nomads with no address.  That won't fly in the USA, you must give an address.  For example, we can't get Florida health insurance because you  must give an address and ours is in Vermont.

Latitude/longitude, with GPS is one answer.  But it is very technical and hard to use.  Identifying your location within 3 meters required 16 lat plus 16 lon digits.

what3words idea was to pre-assign a 3-word address to every 3x3 meter square on the Earth's surface, water an ice as well as land.  It is much more human friendly than GPS because people are skilled at remembering and correctly repeating phrases with common words.  They are not skilled at correctly repeating long strings of numbers.

what3words refined their idea in many ways.  The vocabulary of words is chosen to be easy to pronounce.  Homynyms and difficult words are not used.  Slightly misspoken addresses are never nearby your location.  They make it work in multiple languages, not just English, and in 3D for high rise buildings.  See their web site for a full list of refinements.  I'll say only that they have thought it out thoroughly.

Imagine a guest on your boat who has to contact the coast guard and give your location in an emergency.  renewals.stepfamily.agent locates you right in the middle of The Gulf Stream near here.  what3words wisely reserved the shortest easiest words for the most densely populated areas. For example, puts you in Miami Beach and that address is much easier than consequently.contends.fusion in the ocean near Miami Beach.   An app for your phone or computer does the address lookup for you. what3words guarantees that all versions of the software give identical addresses for the same place.

Imagine trying to deliver a package to a location within the shanty ghettos of Rio de Janario.  There are no streets or addresses in those places where the majority of Rio's population live.

Imagine ordering pizza to be delivered by drone to your wilderness camp site.

The only valid criticism I've heard is that the software is not open source.  Longevity and the ability of the scheme to survive bankruptcies, revolutions, and changes in programming technology is the problem.

But no matter how impressed I am, I'm not optimistic about what3words coming into widespread use.  The inertia and resistance to change in human societies is very powerful.   That should be a lesson to all wannabe-word-savers with clever ideas. In the USA, what3words could succeed if adopted it. But doesn't need it, they get along well with the old system.

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