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.