Johan Knols is used to getting unusual directions as he travels around rural Tanzania. “Usually, when I’m trying to find someone’s house, they’ll guide me by saying, ‘after the fourth tree, down the path to the left’ or something like that,” says Knols, a field operations manager at In2Care, an NGO working to eradicate malaria by distributing mosquito traps in the east African country.
“When I started going to rural areas, I could see some houses had a weird number on them – not a house number – but I could see that some houses had markings on them from previous research that had been done. So everybody is battling with the same problem,” says Knols.
“They say to me, how do I tag a house? I say, keep it simple and keep it cheap.”
Now, Knols has started using what3words, an app that records GPS coordinates to nine square metres and simplifies them into a three-word combination, to mark the location of houses he has visited. This makes it easier for him to find the house if he has to return.
The app provides a universal addressing system by breaking the world into 57 trillion squares and assigning each one a three-word combination, making it easier to remember than long GPS coordinates.
For Chris Sheldrick, one of the app’s creators, what3words answers a global need.
“People can open a bank account more easily because they can describe where they live,” he says. “If people need to get aid, the authorities and NGOs will know where they live. They can register with a doctor. Their children’s schools will know where they live. People can get anything delivered by anybody because they’ve got a way of referencing their location.”
As the global population swells, many countries in the developing world are experiencing rapid growth. Much of this is concentrated in cities, making the need to organise and map informal settlements greater than ever. More than 4 billion people – more than half the world’s population – are not recognised by the law, largely because many governments require an address to establish a legal identity, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Not having an identity denies people access to a range of services.
What3words seeks to create usable addresses for the world’s “invisible” millions.
But if the app works on a virtual grid, down on the real streets of Dar es Salaam, other projects also seek to put people, and their businesses, on more old-fashioned maps in a bid to bolster communities’ knowledge and ability to deal with floods and other potential crises.
Dar es Salaam is the fastest growing city in Africa, according to the African Development Bank (pdf). It has attracted a host of startup companies and NGOs but it has also become something of a playground for new technology, such as drones and smartphone apps, as people try to map and track the urban expansion.
Walking along a narrow alley between a construction site and a group of houses in Tandale, a bustling informal settlement in the city, Robinson Kisyombe stops to note the location of a shop selling eggs, milk and kerosene gas. “Most people inTanzania don’t have an address so it’s hard to know where things are,” says Kisyombe, 21, an urban planning student, as he crosses the road to take a photo of a drain. “We’re trying to create a map that everyone can use.”
He is one of 150 student volunteers at Dar Ramani Huria, a World Bank-funded community mapping project that aims to create an open-source map of the city. Its main purpose is to flag areas of Dar es Salaam that are prone to flooding during the rainy season.
Kisyombe’s family home was hit by floods in 2013. Wanting to keep others from going through the same trauma, he decided to study urban planning at Ardhi University in Dar es Salaam. “These maps will help others,” says Kisyombe, who roams around Tandale with his smartphone, taking photos and plotting the location of shops, businesses and houses using OpenStreetMap, which anyone can access for free online.
Earlier, a drone criss-crossed the sky about 200 metres above Tandale, taking a series of aerial photos that are used to map the dwellings, businesses and roads below. The imagery captured by the drone, which costs about $16,000 including software, is used by students like Kisyombe, who divide the map into different squares before visiting them on foot. They then return to a computer to verify the exact location of buildings, roads and key infrastructure.
While Dar Ramani Huria isn’t trying to create addresses, the data it has gathered is freely available online, meaning it could be used in any future efforts to do so.
The creation of national addressing systems in developing countries would allow more people to access government services, such as welfare and pension payments, and to register with utility companies, financial institutions and health services, the UN’s Universal Postal Union (UPU) says. Addresses are also critical to allow governments to collect taxes efficiently, and help businesses target new markets.
Patricia Vivas, an addressing expert at the UPU, says there is the political will in Tanzania to make this change. “There has been an ongoing effort for more than 10 years. They [politicians] empower the citizens to participate and invite other stakeholders – private and public – to participate, to provide ideas, to find a common solution to tackle the issue of not having addresses. It’s a national effort and this is very complicated.”
What3words’ Sheldrick adds: “For a lot of the authorities it never seems like the right time to go and spend money to sort this out – until they realise that, actually, we want to document who lives here and maybe these people want to open a bank account or pay taxes, but we haven’t yet given them a way to refer to where they live. But that’s not straightforward, it’s not quick and it’s not cheap.”
What3words is in talks with four African governments to use their app for official addressing purposes. “They are very quick to recognise the benefits,” says Sheldrick, listing e-commerce and microfinance as sectors that are in dire need of addresses. “There’s a sense in these countries now that they’ve got a problem, and addresses do matter.
“It’s the right time because people are thinking, ‘OK, how do I fix my addressing system? I haven’t got 10 years to do it. I need to do this now’.”
– The Guardian
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