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Missionaries for Magic

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Once upon a time, a few years ago, there was a startup company called what3words that tried (and apparently still tries) to make money out of selling an address system based on encoding geographic coordinates into a string. To anyone with a bit of background in geodata and geography the idea of making a business out of this was obviously ludicrous but even more ludicrous was the fact that they had some (limited) business success with it.

The thing is the idea of encoding coordinates in a grid system in some way is not in any way new so you cannot patent the idea. And you cannot really claim copyright protection on the encoded coordinates either so the only way you can try to make money out of this is by keeping the encoding system secret and licensing it for people to use.

In essence what3words can probably be considered one of the most successful trolls of our society and our economic system in recent years.

For other companies in the domain of location based services, in particular Google, this was and is a nuisance, not only as competition but also because of the ridicule it brings to the whole domain. So Google’s interest here is not so much grabbing the market share of what3words and making money out of the same thing – they have bigger fish to fry. They just want to get rid of the troll that gives everyone in the field, especially them, a bad reputation.

To do that they did the obvious thing, they created an open, non-proprietary encoding system and push it as the better alternative in the hope that when faced with the decision to take the free solution or buy the proprietary one from what3words people will usually choose the free one – provided they put enough muscle behind it in terms of advertisement and visible endorsement by others.

That’s the background of the situation we have right now. What i already found amazing back when what3words started pushing their system was that the only critique of the whole thing was because of the proprietary nature of it. But there are plenty of other things you can criticize about this idea.

The main sales pitch of these encoding systems is that there are large parts of the world with no reliable and maintained address system, in particular in regions with fast growing populations like in large parts of Africa. So the IT engineers in Silicon Valley think: We can solve than and auto-generate addresses for all these poor people without addresses. That would have been fine if they would have stopped at this point, providing the encoding system to anyone who wants to use it (minus the attempt to make money from this of course in case of what3words).

But this is not what happens right now. Since the main motive of Google is to kill off the nuisance of what3words they cannot be satisfied with just offering their open alternative to everyone interested, they need to push it to beat or at least get close to what3words in terms of market penetration. And the whole humanitarian and development aid sector of course jumps on this because they obviously also want to help the poor people in Africa and cannot idly stand by while Google rolls out the best idea since sliced bread.

Time to take a step back and look at what address systems (which is what the location encoding systems are supposed to serve as) actually are. Sarah Hoffmann covered this nicely in her presentation about Nominatim at SotM. Addresses are the way humans typically refer to geographic locations in communication with other humans. Because they are designed by humans for human use and usually have developed over centuries they vary a lot world wide based on cultural particularities. Address systems usually are essentially modeled after how human perceive their local geographic environment. Because of that designing a Geocoder (the tools that translate between geographic coordinates and addresses) is a fairly complicated task.

Now the coordinate encoding systems discussed above are modeled after what is most convenient for computers, the geographic coordinate representation. The encoding is designed to be human readable and suitable for human communication (with what3words and Google following quite different approaches to achieving this) but it is still a code and you have to either memorize it or look it up, you have no mental geographical context for your address in this form. Since the encoding algorithm is nothing you would realistically perform in your mind using such a code in place of a traditional address requires essentially treating it as a magic code. In other words: The only way you can establish a system like this as an address system for human-to-human use is to detach it from its original meaning and treat it as pure magic.

This is what people in the humanitarian sector apparently try to do at the moment, bulk generating these location codes for buildings in African countries and presenting these as the addresses of these buildings to the people living there. Some of this effort is now swashing over into OpenStreetMap where of course storing codes in the database which are just an encoding of the geographic location is ludicrous but from the mindset of the people involved in those projects it makes sense, to get people to adopt these codes in human-to-human communication and thereby give them an actual social meaning you have to – as explained – establish them as magic codes detached from their origin.

I find the attitude underlying these efforts (both if based on a proprietary and an open encoding) pretty cynic and inhuman. Instead of helping and advising people in African villages in developing their own local address system based on their local circumstances and specific needs you develop a system of magic codes chosen because it is convenient to program and nudge people in Africa to organize their lives around this system of codes. The arrogance and ignorance of history that shines through in this is fairly mind-boggling.

Now to be clear about this: I think most people voicing their support for such location code systems these days are probably blissfully unaware of this background, which is partly why i explain it here.

And there is nothing inherently bad about encoding geographic coordinates in some form. It is mostly pointless but it can have its uses, in particular in human-to-computer interaction. But then we are not talking about an address system any more but about a coordinate specification and encoding system.

By the way what Google is now pushing is just a more primitive version of a pretty old idea. Google’s system degrades and fails towards the poles – a problem that can be easily avoided by putting a tiny bit more brain into it. But Google as usual is satisfied with a 90-percent-solution.

Update: Frederik has written a FAQ on the subject addressing a number of practical questions around it.

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: Plus Code Frequently Asked Questions | osm.gryph.de

  2. Give bad vibes to me like boot crawling in OSM. I do understand we need machine readable stuff and help from automation. But thing like maps are for people first? And humanitarian aid putting automation and as little effort as possible to aid again. Interesting how many low effort (some times very expensive) sanitation, water quality, electrification and similar projects gone to nothing…

  3. First, giving addresses to every building is not an easy task even for a small village. Especially when even road names are not common (see the leaflet on plus codes from sotm). You would have to name everything, keep a country-wide registry, distribute it among post offices, keep it updated, then devise a system for numbering buildings, track new and demolished buildings… This takes millions, if not billions, US dollars. So it is quite obvious why governments are eager to take on addressing systems that do not require them to create a new expensive registry. In this regard, even w3w saves them tons of money.

    Knowing this, your sentiment “Instead of helping and advising people in African villages in developing their own local address system based on their local circumstances and specific needs you develop a system of magic codes” reads as “let them eat cake”.

    And as for magic, “common” addressing systems are magic as well. Because it’s not magic when you know how it works, but go to a different country with different addressing, like Japan, and you’re lost. There is no single approach to addressing, there are many systems, and Plus Codes does not stand out much — well, it does to an european eye, but these are few on this planet.

    • Regarding costs – i am aware of this motivation (and justification argument). This is a major part of the problem. People regard it as an economic optimization problem completely disregarding the fact that this is primarily about people and their local social interaction. An analogy that might help: Imagine someone suggesting we give up giving people personal names (because it is so costly to the administration and businesses to deal with them, because people are discriminated because of their names and the stigma they might carry, whatever) and instead assign codes to people automatically generated based on some kind of biometrics. Most people will likely regard this as both ridiculous and inhumane.

      Generating a human centered address system from scratch seems complicated for a bureaucrat because they imagine doing it in a classic inefficient bureaucratic way. The same people would likely also say: Generating a world wide accurate and detailed map would just be unimaginably costly. Yet we have OpenStreetMap attempting exactly that. And if you look at Africa by the way – a huge problem of many countries there is that they have a fast growing population but way too little productive and useful work for all these people to perform. Dismissing the idea of generating a local human centered address system in these countries because it is too much work is pretty much insane with this background in mind. I could hardly imagine any better investment in the future of such countries than employing a part of the people there to generate an address system that would without doubt be an important asset for future generations and the social cohesion of these societies.

      So we have the means for decentralized development of human centered address systems by people locally. And there are very good reasons to do so where no such address system exits yet. And this is something OpenStreetMap could help with and support by the way.

      Regarding the magic nature of code based addresses – i thought this was something i clearly explained in my text. Classical addresses have a geographic context, both in their hierarchical structure (like country, city, street, housenumber) and in the way these elements work. The relationship between my address and that of my neighbors is clear to everyone familiar with the local address system, there is no magic involved in that. So is the meaning of the hierarchical structure. They are made by humans for human use and use does not only mean memorizing the address, it means working with the geographic context.

      • I partly agree with you on crowdsourced addressing, which nobody has tried (yet). It might work (as OSM) or it might fail (as Transiki), but without trying we can’t be sure it’s impossible. Plus codes are obviously inhumane — I’ve just posted an article on that: http://shtosm.ru/all/tozhe-plyus/

        Regarding the magic, I have to elaborate. Street + housenumber addressing is obvious to you, since you’ve been learning it since childhood. When you travel to Slovakia or Zelenograd in Russia, you suddenly get street-less addresses with no understanding of how they work. You get magic number, which locals seem to understand, but you don’t. The magic is a technology that you don’t understand. And it is perfectly okay to use and adapt to it.

        • The term ‘magic’ is probably a bit problematic here because it is somewhat imprecise. The Google translation of your Russian post for example translates it back into witchcraft. Address systems are culture specific and vary a lot world wide, therefore it is natural that a foreigner does not necessarily understand a local address system intuitively (although in a lot of cases this is possible to find out through simple observation without having someone explain it to you). But in practical use of addresses by humans people have in the vast majority of cases an awareness of the geographic context. And it is immensely helpful to have this because it helps remembering addresses and it helps with plausibility checks and error correction. You can be sure that if we would use a location code system instead of traditional addresses the postal services all around the world would have a much harder time delivering mail with invalid addresses because while with traditional addresses you can very often correct errors because of the redundancies in addresses and the connection to real world structures and relationships you are pretty much in a hopeless situation when you have a location code that is wrong. In other words: You can use traditional addresses as magic codes as well but this happens very rarely and is an awkward way to deal with them. This is different from the magic nature of location codes treated as addresses where in practical use in human-to-human communication you never have a mental geographic context unless you decode it into coordinates (and then the code is not treated as an address any more but as an encoded set of coordinates).

          Side note: It is interesting that Google has not added a checksum to their location codes like many other codes practically used in everyday life have (bank account numbers, bar codes).

  4. “Instead of helping and advising people in African villages in developing their own interconnected computer network system based on their local circumstances and specific needs you develop a system of magic IP addresses chosen because it is convenient to program and nudge people in Africa to organize their lives around this system of codes. The arrogance and ignorance of history that shines through in this is fairly mind-boggling.”

    Killer argument without sustance. I find it more arrogant that you speak for other people and explain what they is good or bad for them, what impleicit means they can not speak for themself, than forcing them into an address system.

  5. You mention (link to) the MGRS system, but I think the “plus codes” are even more reminiscent of the GEOREF system, or the Maidenhead Locator system popular in ham radio circles, both of which are straightforward encodings of latitude and longitude.

    • Yes, technically you are right. I specifically mentioned MGRS because it is very old (developed in the 1940s), more sophisticated than all the treating earth as a rectangle systems and because it was not originally developed top-down as a coordinate encoding system but was designed for local use – for delivering artillery grenades instead of mail.

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