A location grid is not an address 7

No Name Road  The things that go on down here! Marnhull, Dorset - Sadly, shortly after my visit, the whole area was destroyed by fire and brimstone, including nearby Gomorrah Avenue.  Street Names 3

This is going to be a longish post if you don’t care about addresses this might be one to skip. This post was prompted by reading Mike Dobson’s review of What3Words, shortly afterwards Rollo Home pointed me to an article about Google’s Open Location Codes, the topic also popped up on the OSGeo mailing list when someone tried to promote their proprietary grid and direction system, which prompted some quite strong responses to say the least and then I had a robust debate with Mark Iliffe about addressing in developing countries, specifically Tanzania.

A couple of weeks back Mike Dobson published a blog post What3Words – Not.Quite.Right on the What3Words location code system. After a long and detailed review, Mike concluded

W3w seems to make a great fuss about the memorability of their three word triplets triumphing over the difficulties in using lat/lon coordinates. In other words, the w3w coordinates could be considered as a simple mnemonic for representing a location in a table that contains lat/lon.

Although I have never tried to memorize coordinate pairs, I agree that lat/lon coordinates might be hard to remember. Of course, so is memorizing and retaining the correct form of a random concatenation of three-words from a forty-thousand word dictionary that creates approximately 57 trillion unique variations of these coordinate triplets.

Perhaps more to the point, I cannot remember the last time I focused on remembering a specific lat/lon coordinate. However, I use lat/lon almost daily, but this action has been made opaque by mapping and finding technology.

In fairness to w3w he added

I admire the team at w3w for attempting to solve a difficult problem. Unfortunately, convincing the world to use a new grid is a very difficult task, even when you might have created something better than that which already exists. While w3w is being effectively marketed, it is my opinion that is it is unlikely to be widely adopted. It lacks what I consider to be a fundamental innovation. Further, its utility as a map grid is constrained by the simplicity that makes its use appealing to many.

Finally, I am no more enamored of the new grids Map Code and Open Location Code than w3w, but for entirely different reasons.

There are a plethora of other location grids out there including:

The Natural Area Code system from NAC Geographics who seem to have been an early forerunner (1994) of other attempts at a global address coding system based on a grid of some sort.

The Military Grid Reference System has been around since the 80’s (or earlier?)

Mapcodes were developed in 2001 by Pieter Geelen and Harold Goddijn of TeleAtlas,  the system was placed in the public domain in 2008. The algorithms and data tables are maintained by the Stichting Mapcode Foundation.

Open Location Codes appeared in early 2014 as a result of work done in Google’s labs in Zurich, they have been open sourced so that the algorithm is freely available for use and enhancement.

In case these weren’t sufficient choices the Government of Dubai announced the adoption of its own location code system called Makani. I guess if a Crown Prince directs the municipality to use the codes, they are likely to get widespread adoption (at least in Dubai).

So why are there so many different options for a location grid or code? Most of the originators agree that there is a need to find a way to identify the large part of the world that do not have authoritative addresses (typically government or municipally applied and controlled)

“Current addresses are not available to the homes of 60% world population” NAC

“The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting. Around 75% of the world (135 countries) suffers from inconsistent, complicated or inadequate addressing systems.” w3w

“Many parts of the world and more than half the world’s urban population lack street addresses [farvacque].” OLC

Each of the solutions offers a grid (sometimes variable in size) with either alpha numeric codes or a combination of three words. They are all a proxy for coordinates and some of them offer a logical structure that enables the user to infer some sense of regionality or proximity, w3w quite deliberately eschews proximity in its codes so that word1.word2.word3 will be nowhere near word1.word2.word4.

I don’t see a lot of difference between the various systems in terms of usefulness. The assertions of memorability are highly debatable, I doubt that any of them are memorable with limited use. Personally I lean towards OLC or MGRS because the algorithms are open, I am instinctively hesitant about closed systems (MapCode terms prevent adaptation or re-engineering)  The big challenge for any of the location grid systems is gaining widespread adoption, unless masses of people start communicating about location using MapCodes or NACs or w3w then they will never become viable. So from an adoption perspective you would have to back Open Location Codes, they have the might of Google behind them, they are open source and they can be quite short.

But and it is a big but, let’s be clear location grids are not addresses

What is an address?

The particulars of the place where someone lives or an organization is situated:
they exchanged addresses and agreed to keep in touch” Oxford Dictionaries

“An address is a collection of information, presented in a mostly fixed format, used for describing the location of a building, apartment, or other structure or a plot of land, generally using political boundaries and street names as references, along with other identifiers such as house or apartment numbers. Some addresses also contain special codes to aid routing of mail and packages, such as a ZIP code or post code.” Wikipedia

 Addresses are descriptive, without any knowledge of a coding system we can start to determine where a building might be. Take 37, Nowhere Street, Someplace, BigCounty, England, SP1 2BC. If you are familiar with England you can probably recognise the county or the town and have a sense of how close you are from that town, if you are a local you may know the street name. If I am presented with two addresses in the same street or town I will have a sense of proximity (useful for people delivering products and services). Addresses are usually managed by government or municipal authorities, they are important in the delivery of services and taxation, they are a component of electoral systems, they provide a standardised and authoritative reference system for public and private services.


Location codes if widely adopted might solve some problems of delivering public and emergency services or parcel delivery in countries without a formal addressing system, they might be useful in a military application or a humanitarian disaster response but they are not a substitute for addresses. Mark Iliffe convinced me that they could be a useful stepping stone for a country that wants to develop and address system but, in my opinion, only if the code system is free, supports some sense of proximity and regionality and is recognised as an interim step.


Incidentally, addresses have great potential for humour (as to be fair do some w3w’s), if you want a light interlude from my address rant have a look at Funny Street Names or Gary Gale’s (now working at w3w) Vaguely Rude Places or The 10 Rudest street names in Britain.

7 thoughts on “A location grid is not an address

  • Mike Sanderson

    This is a good debate. Can I focus on Ant Beck’s socially desirable term? Bouazizi did not immolate himself because he wanted democracy in Tunisia. It was a cry from a tortured person about corruption. He had to produce permits from 47 agencies to show he had the right to be a street trader. Each agency wanted a payment. Each agency wanted to record his details including an address. Does this not sound familiar the world over? It has long been hypothesised that the a start can be made on poverty if title can be proved. What all administrations need is a central repository where these details are held once. Doesn’t a record of a location which can be transformed into a unique code seems a worthwhile starting point? Just as our fixation with measuring poverty based on income (of $1) is a western paradigm so is our fixation with having a BS7666 type address. Why shouldn’t it be a code which can be translated into whatever delivery model the organisation or jurisdiction favours?

    • steven


      Land ownership records don’t reduce poverty. Land ownership records and enforcement of property rights may reduce exploitation and expropriation (it has been asserted but I am not sure that is proven). Land titles cannot be described accurately by any of the algorithmic location codes so I don’t follow the connection you are making?

      If you asked most people living on under $1/day what they need most I doubt it would be an address or a location code – jobs, health, education, food, water, physical infrastructure, freedom would all come above an address.

      Location codes may be a useful alternative to a formal addressing system for some applications in the developing world (and elsewhere). The debate then is around what system to use, my vote would go to an open and transparent system, wouldn’t yours?



  • steven

    From Ant Beck:
    I agree with pretty much all of your summary and the inevitable critique of w3w. I covered many of the same topics for my presentation at address day and suggested that global address frameworks should have the following as a minimum:

    * Algorithmic (WGS84 minting)
    * Short/memorable
    * Self checking (parity)
    * Unlimited spatial precision
    * Open and Interoperable

    And would benefit from the following additional characteristics:

    * Indoor use and 3d (addresses for rooms?)
    * Inherent geo-statistical aggregation (spatially scalable)
    * Area representation based on a regular tessellation
    * Spatial adjacency relations within the encoding

    That said I disagree with your premise that location grids are not addresses. If we live in an open data landscape then all (or at least the majority) of the traditional address data can be inferred directly from the location grid (the Ordnance Survey Open data will get us down to the postcode level using the semweb stack John Goodwin implemented). Furthermore addresses rely on expensive infrastructure that in developing environments simply does not exist (but you’re convinced on that point anyway). An algorithmic approach transcends any street naming/mapping infrastructure requirement and builds a bridge between formal and informal encoding.

    That said I agree that just because something is technically achievable does not make it socially desirable. That is the harder task.

    I think I would also add to that there is a need to have a persistent addressing URI for the semantic web. As the web of linked data starts to gain more traction the ability to use this at an enterprise/global level will offer some real benefits in terms of comparative metrics (smart cities, geodemographics etc), global delivery logistics (Amazon, google etc.), inclusivity (legal issues linking citizenship to land tenure/addresses) and disaster response.

    I think the upshot is that addresses from a global viewpoint are increasingly not fit for purpose. The issue is what fills that spot. IMHO it’s not w3w.



    • steven

      I’m not replying to myself, I’m replying to Ant

      Let me refer you back to the definition of an address “An address is a collection of information, presented in a mostly fixed format, used for describing the location of a building, apartment, or other structure or a plot of land..” For me the key is that it should be human readable not a URI, not a set of alphanumeric codes or a triplet of forgettable words.

      You can make a case for a ‘digital’ persistent location code that is based on an open algorithm as a tool for all sorts of applications but it’s a tool for machine to machine communication. People exchange location information differently, they talk about localities, streets and building numbers in.my.opinion

      There are good use cases for a location code, particularly in the developing world but they must be open and transparent. Let’s not pretend that they are a substitute for addresses.



  • Rob Walker

    Steven. You are quite right. A mapcode/location grid is not an address. A crucial aspect of an address is that it identifies something. Thus “24 High street” is an identifier of an actual property.

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