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​How a French vacation shows we need high-tech addresses

Even in the Net era, physical addresses are important in mature and developing economies. That's why companies like Google and What3words offer global location-encoding systems.

Google's Open Location Code gives addresses to buildings like this Corsican guesthouse that don't have street addresses.
Google's Open Location Code gives addresses to buildings like this Corsican guesthouse that don't have street addresses. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

CARGESE, Corsica, France -- Ours is a 21st-century family. On our April vacation to Corsica, we booked lodging through Airbnb, navigated by satellite and followed trail maps on a smartphone.

But in one way, our two-week journey to France's scenic Mediterranean isle was like being dragged back to the Middle Ages: Corsican dwellings often lack street addresses. Each of the four times we moved to a new house, we wasted lots of time trying to figure out where the heck to go. Apartment buildings in mainland France don't number their apartments, and postal codes cover areas too big to be really useful, but Corsica was way worse.

There's good news, though. Everyone from mapping goliath Google to small startups like What3words are bringing new address technology that's trying to fix the situation. Even better, that technology will help countless people in developing economies who lack functioning address systems -- not just tourists with first world problems.

That could be a big deal. Four billion people lack addresses, according to the United Nations Development Program. That makes it hard for them to receive packages, tap into government benefits, sign up for electricity and water utilities and get help from emergency services. Even in our Internet-infused future, physical addresses matter.

Corsican tirade

Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and for centuries a Genoan outpost, is robbed of modern efficiencies by its imperfect addressing.

To find one house, our instructions were to drive 300 meters past a particular intersection, look for a bus stop, then for a nearby metal gate. For another, we met the proprietor at a nearby cafe. For a third, we had to find a particular concrete-paved road, look for a line of garages, drive past three buildings and then look for another that had the words "BAT G" in red -- lettering an inch high on an electrical junction box, as it turned out. The fourth was 7km from one town and 5km from another. We found it easily -- but only because I'd spent about half an hour in advance scrutinizing Google Maps satellite photos.

I was flabbergasted. France is the country that invented the metric system and Cartesian coordinates! Paris was the runner-up for the location of the Prime Meridian, where longitude is zero. Baron Haussmann replaced a maze of medieval streets in the country's capital with rationally planned boulevards. This is the nation that hasn't figured out street addresses yet?

But it turns out it's not alone. The Republic of Ireland isn't even scheduled to get its first postal code system, Eircode, until this summer. Nigeria and Lebanon began nationwide address systems in 2013. Many Japanese streets don't have names, and some address numbers are assigned not by position but by the date the building was registered. Even where real-world addresses exist, it's very hard for programmers at shipping and mapping companies to systematically handle all their irregularities.

This kind of confusion made me realize how I'd taken US street numbers and ZIP codes for granted. And it gave me an even better appreciation for the UK's postal codes, which are precise enough to punch in to Google Maps or a car's sat-nav system and which are deeply embedded into the country's government and commercial services.

New technology

Where I see problems, businesses see opportunities.

On my second-to-last day in Corsica, Google publicly launched a project called Open Location Code that converts long numeric latitude-longitude coordinates into a 10-digit sequence of numbers and letters. Napoleon's birthplace in Ajaccio, Corsica, for example, is at 8FHCWP9Q+6C. Adding human-memorable elements can shorten the address, though; 3F88+9M Albuquerque will get you to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

Google hopes its codes will help with navigation and package delivery.

"People are currently using addresses like 'behind the old bus stop' that either presuppose detailed local knowledge or are more like directions," said Doug Rinckes, a technical program manager at Google Switzerland. "If we can give people an alternative that means that DHL, TNT or UPS are even able to try to deliver something to you in places like unmapped towns, or cities with unnamed streets, that would be amazing."

Google has released its Open Location Code algorithm as open-source software so anybody can use it for free, but the most obvious candidate is Google Maps, a service embedded in millions of Android phones. Open Location Code support in Google Maps could ease tasks like telling your friend where a trailhead is located -- or make it easier for Airbnb to help me bookmark the location of my rented house. The Chez Joelle guesthouse has no street address besides just "Le Casone" in the Corsican village of Ota, but with Open Location Code you can find it at 8FJC7P5V+98 or 5V+98 Ota, France.

Open Location Code's designers hope for Google Maps support. "That's definitely my hope (and I'm working with colleagues)," Rinckes said in a mailing list comment. "We have been asked why we open-sourced it first, and the reason was that we wanted to get feedback early on and see if the algorithm survived on its own merits, or if it needed to be modified."

Google isn't alone. The MapCode Foundation, run by the co-founder of Netherlands-based navigation specialist TomTom International among others, has an alphanumeric system for precise locations, too. NAC Geographic Products has licensed its system to some countries. In India and other emerging markets, a company called Zippr hopes to ease package delivery and navigation with its smartphone-based addressing system.

More memorable

A UK-based startup called What3words has a different approach, though. Its algorithm divides the world into 57 trillion squares of land 3 meters on a side, each with its own three-word label. Times Square in central New York City is bolts.native.year and Faneuil Hall in Boston is atomic.camera.poem, for example.

What3words encodes geographic locations like Mount Rushmore with unique three-word combinations, and it works in multiple languages. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"The reason we're better than the alphanumerics is memorability," said Giles Rhys Jones, marketing chief of the eight-person company. "Your ability to remember three words is nearly perfect. Your ability to remember anything over seven digits or alphanumeric characters is zero."

The company still uses an algorithm to generate the three-word combinations, which means the technology works even without a network connection. The system works with an expanding list of non-English languages, too, and is optimized so areas with higher population density get shorter names, Rhys Jones said. For example, Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota is occasionnellement.antiaérienne.abrègement in French but the Eiffel Tower in Paris is galon.baisser.coupe.

What3words hopes to make money through use of its service, with big customers paying for access to its application programming interface.

Finding national monuments is fine, but the company's business hinges more on adoption in developing markets. "We're talking to a couple governments in Africa to put our system in place as the postal system. They have nothing there," Rhys Jones said.

For example, in the Brazilian slums known as favelas, one entrepreneur is using What3words to operate the last leg of a delivery service in the chaos of unnamed streets.

And that's where, like me finding a business faster in Corsica, the world stands to gain.

"It used to be you were unconnected and unbanked," but smartphones and electronic banking services are coming to developing nations, Rhys Jones said. "We think unaddressed is the third part you really need for social and economic development."