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Thanks to This Startup, Mongolia’s Nomads Can Finally Get Their Mail

Mongolia's postal service is abandoning house numbers and street names and will instead be using three-word addresses.

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Delivering the mail in rural Mongolia is no easy feat. About 30 percent of the population is still nomadic and the country is among the world’s least densely populated. Many Mongolians are forced to collect their mail from a post office box, often far from their homes, while others have no access to deliveries at all. For the packages that do make their way across the steppe, postmen have to rely on local knowledge to navigate the vast swathes of the country that lack actual roads.

A London-based startup is hoping to change all that — one three-word combination at a time.

The company is called What3Words and they’ve developed an app that records GPS coordinates to nine-square-meter plots and simplifies them into a three-word combinations to mark a specific location a map. The Mongol Post, the country’s national mail service, announced in May that it would be switching to the system, which is set to come into effect on August 1. The change is viewed as an efficient and cost-effective way to improve Mongolia’s postal problems in rural areas and in the capital Ulaanbaatar, where many streets don’t have names and many residents live in makeshift housing without a designated address.

Putting in a sophisticated new street addressing system is a major endeavor that can require millions of dollars worth of investment and decades to put in place. In adopting What3Words’ three-word technique, Mongolian officials are hoping to save time and money by going completely digital, Giles Rhys Jones, marketing director at What3Words, told Foreign Policy.

“They saw this as a way to leapfrog into the new era of addressing,” said Jones.

The basis of the new system is that a trio of words is easier to remember than a series of numbers that make up GPS coordinates, with each unique word combination corresponding to a specific 9-square-meter spot on the map. This universal addressing system works by breaking the world into 57 trillion squares and assigning each one a three-word combination.

For instance, Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan International Airport becomes loans.lives.breached; or Paris’ Eiffel Tower becomes prices.slippery.traps using What3Words system.

The combinations are randomly assigned and have been refined to avoid homophones or offensive terms, with short terms reserved for the most populated areas of the world. Moreover, the app can be used without a cellular or data connection on a mobile phone, making it ideal for Mongolia and other rural areas. The plan is for What3words to be integrated across Mongol Post’s internal systems, with postal workers using the new form of addressing to navigate directly to the square, wherever it may be, and find the customer’s front door.

The company hopes Mongolia will be just the start. What3Words is also currently being used by NGOs in Tanzania to track cholera outbreaks and provide malaria drugs to difficult to reach communities. Moreover, residents in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s largest slums, started using What3Words’ system in 2015 to deliver packages within the densely populated area.

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Two men use the What3Words app to find an address in Mongolia. 

Successful pilots could be good news for the roughly four billion people in the world that have no address for mailing purposes, leaving them unable to establish a legal identity, according to the U.N. Development Program. Rapid economic growth in the developing world could send those numbers higher, with the swelling populations of major cities increasing the number of people living in informal settlements.

In Mongolia, the change from referring to locations with house numbers and street names to word combinations could have a big impact beyond people receiving their mail, it could also improve the lives of many Mongolians.

“We’re trying to democratize addressing. Whether you live in a house, a tent, or an R.V., you now have a way to describe where you live,” Jones said. “An address allows you to vote, open a bank account, and access government services. Without one you’re invisible.”

Beyond connecting residents to the wider world, the creation of a national addressing system is vital for allowing governments to collect taxes efficiently and for helping businesses target new markets, according to the U.N.’s Universal Postal Union.

And while Mongolians are trailblazers in using What3Words’ system for state-run mail delivery, many organizations have found other uses for the British startup, including navigation apps, courier companies, and even the United Nations, which used the company’s system to develop a free to use rapid response disaster relief app.

Photo credit: PAULA BRONSTEIN/Getty Images; What3Words

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan covering Central Asia and Eurasia for Foreign Policy and other publications. He was formerly an associate editor at FP. Twitter: @reidstan

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