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Ivory Coast adopts unconventional digital address system

What3words offers an easy-to-remember system for identifying any 3-meter square in the world, good for commerce and navigation in the African nation.

The What3words address of heaven.mallard.houseguests points to one particular structure on the outskirts of Mberie in the African country of Ivory Coast.

Stephen Shankland/CNET (screenshot)

With a digital mapping service called What3words, residents of even the smallest, most rural village in the African nation of Ivory Coast now have an official address.

The country's postal system just adopted the startup's technology, which assigns a three-word phrase to each 3-meter square on the map. For example, heaven.mallard.houseguests is a structure on the outskirts of Mberie.

The country will be using the service for home deliveries, including farming products from OCP Africa and groceries from supermarket Yaatoo, the company said. "Three-word addresses will help us to extend e-commerce opportunities, home delivery and support businesses in both urban and rural spaces," Isaac Gnamba-Yao, chief executive of the postal service in Ivory Coast, said in a statement Tuesday.

Addresses in developed countries can seem ho-hum, but without them, it can be difficult to give directions, arrange meeting places and deliver products. Four billion people lack addresses, according to the United Nations Development Program.

Even in developed countries, though, What3words can be useful, as I discovered on the French island of Corsica, which lacks numbered addresses in many cases. The Republic of Ireland only now is getting postal codes. And a precise method of labeling turf also is handy for meeting people in the middle of an amusement park or finding a trailhead at the end of a dirt road in the mountains.

The What3words system has some caveats, though. Chief among them: You'll need a phone or other computing device to convert the three-word address and real-word location, though it does work without an internet connection. It's not integrated with existing online mapping tools like Google Maps, either, which by the way has its own separate short-form addressing system called Open Location Code.

Also, without sequential numbering, it's not obvious that yawned.toothless.rounding is just down the road from heaven.mallard.houseguests.

But the African nation is convinced it's still worthwhile. Digital mapping can leapfrog the hassles of physical addresses the way mobile phones can connect people who never got phones hooked up with copper cables.