Eunice Sewaphe, whose small village in South Africa lacks street names and house numbers, holds a sign containing three words that could identify her home. Photograph: Jono Wood
A uk-based startup has developed a geocoding tool that could revolutionise how we discover places, from a far off African village residing to your tent at a rock pageant
In common with possibly 15 million South Africans, Eunice Sewaphe does now not have a road cope with. Her two-room house is in a village known as Relela, in a verdant, hilly vicinity of the Limpopo province, five hours’ power north-east of Johannesburg. If you visited Relela, you is probably struck through several matters the village lacks – cutting-edge sanitation, decent roads, reliable energy – earlier than you have been struck by using a loss of road names or residence numbers. But residing basically off-map has full-size result for human beings like Eunice. It makes it hard to get a bank account, tough to sign in to vote, difficult to use for a job or maybe obtain a letter. For the moment, though, the ones ongoing concerns are eclipsed via every other, larger anxiety. Eunice Sewaphe is nine months pregnant – her first infant is due in two days’ time – and he or she is not pretty positive, with out an address, how she will get to health center.
Sitting inside the sun with Eunice and her neighbours out of doors her residence, in a backyard in which chickens percent within the purple dirt, she explained to me, rather hesitantly, her current plan for the imminent arrival. The closest clinic, Van Velden, in the city of Tzaneen, is 40 minutes away with the aid of car. Whilst Eunice goes into labour, she can must one way or the other get to the principle road more than one miles away so as to find a taxi, for which she and her husband were saving up a few rand a week. If there are headaches, or if the infant arrives at night time, she might also want an ambulance. However since no ambulance may want to find her residence with out an address, this will once more necessitate her getting out to the primary street. Inside the beyond, girls from Relela, in prolonged labour, have needed to be taken in wheelbarrows to look ahead to emergency delivery which can or may not come.
The maternal mortality prices in South Africa continue to be stubbornly high. Of one.1 million births a year, 34,000 toddlers die. Greater than 1,500 girls lose their lives every 12 months in childbirth. Those records are a truth of life in Relela. Josephina Mohatli is one among Eunice’s neighbours. She explains quietly how she went into labour with her first infant prematurely. Whilst she eventually managed to get a taxi, she was taken to two nearby clinics after which a private health practitioner, none of which had been capable of help her. When she sooner or later reached the sanatorium after several determined hours, her child had died.
I’ve come up to Relela with Dr Coenie Louw, who is the nearby head of the charity Gateway health, that is worried with improving those mortality facts. Dr Louw, fifty one, speaks with a gruff Afrikaans accent that belies his evangelist’s optimism to make a change for those girls. “even though frankly,” he says, “if I don’t recognise in which you’re, i can’t help you.”
Google Maps will most effective carry assist to the edge of the village. “We attempted to do some thing with the aid of triangulating between three cell telephone towers,” he says, which proved predictably unreliable. Trying to find other answers, Louw got here across what3words, the modern British technology that, among many different things, well solves the question of ways an ambulance would possibly discover Eunice Sewaphe.
Five years in the past, the founders of what3words divided the entire floor of the planet into a grid of squares, every one measuring 3 metres by 3 metres. There are 57tn of those squares, and every one of them has been assigned a completely unique 3-phrase address. My personal front door in London has the 3-phrase deal with “span.Courageous.Tree”.
The front door of Eunice’s house in Relela is probably “irrigates.Glad.Zipper” (or, in Zulu, “phephani.Khuluma.Bubhaka”). To check the device, i’ve driven up here with certainly one of Gateway fitness’s drivers, Mandla Maluleke. Maluleke has keyed the 3-word code into his cellphone app, which has dropped a pin on a conventional mapping device. Once we leave the main toll road, the GPS at once indicators “unknown street”, however having said that, after many twists and turns it takes us precisely to “irrigates.Comfortable.Zipper”, and Eunice’s the front door.
The what 3 words technology became the idea of Chris Sheldrick, a local of rural Hertfordshire (who knows what it’s far like to face out in a country lane flagging down shipping drivers armed best with a postcode). Like all of the best thoughts he advanced this one to deal with a particular hassle that had maddened him. Sheldrick, 35, had started out existence as a musician, and then after a sleepwalking accident, which broken his wrist, he installation a enterprise organising musicians and manufacturing for festivals and events around the arena. Despite the advent of Google Maps, the hassle that dogged his business turned into bands turning up at the wrong website online entrance. Sheldrick employed someone whose sole responsibility changed into to man a phone line looking to get a band to the proper field. Having given up on conventional satnav they attempted using GPS co-ordinates, however get one determine incorrect, and the celebration by no means got started out.
Sheldrick concept that there needed to be a higher manner. Searching back now, he says that “the important thing factor we had been trying to resolve with what3words was how will we get 15 digits of latitude and longitude into a more communicable human form”. Advances in satellite mapping and navigation intended that if you had been a Deliveroo rider or an Amazon courier or a ultimate-minute saxophonist you had been in no way virtually lost, however also often not exactly in the proper place. Groups like Google and TomTom regarded this hassle, but the answer they advanced turned into an alphanumeric code of nine characters. For Sheldrick that become without a doubt a nonstarter: “whilst a person asked in which you lived, it would be like looking to remember your wifi router password.” That’s while this concept of three phrases got here up. A bit of maths proved it become viable. “With forty,000 recognisable dictionary phrases, you have 64tn mixtures, and there are 57tn squares.”
The algorithm behind what3words took six months to jot down. Sheldrick worked on it with pals he had grown up with. Mohan Ganesalingham, a maths fellow at Trinity university, Cambridge, and Jack Waley-Cohen, a full-time quiz obsessive and query-setter for handiest connect. After the preliminary mapping became complete, they incorporated an errors-correction algorithm, which places comparable-sounding mixtures a completely long way apart. And then there has been the query of language: the usage of a crew of linguists, what3words is now to be had in more than one dozen tongues, from Arabic to Zulu.
It has also grown from a business enterprise of 3 to now round 70 full-time employees after two multimillion-dollar rounds of task capital.
The project now’s teaching the sector in their device. “We glaringly intention to be a international trendy,” Sheldrick says. To that end they’ve lately signed licensing agreements with companies such as Mercedes, that allows you to utilise the system in its A-class automobiles, which include the usage of voice activation, and TomTom, in an effort to contain 3-word commands in its navigation systems. The generation additionally gives an off-the-shelf way to the many nations that lack any type of ordinary address system. Ten governments and their postal services – together with Mongolia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Tuvalu – have signed up to the idea.
“if you consider addresses,” Sheldrick says, “a few are from centuries in the past, a few are from last week, but there is also a lot of the arena that has now not engaged with that. And that can consist of in which I stay in rural Hertfordshire, to our office in London where the postcode does no longer factor to the right area, to entire countries, like Mongolia or Saudi Arabia, that have simply by no means regarded some thing apart from the use of instructions.” for the reason that smartphones now have such wide penetration, he believes there may be the opportunity to leapfrog conventional deal with structures.
Sheldrick is looking the slow develop of his concept in travel guides and e mail signatures and Airbnb booking forms. The era has already proved invaluable in catastrophe zones and refugee camps as well as at rock gala’s. It can easily permit drone delivery. Earlier this month the lead GP on the Isle of Mull, Dr Brian Prendergast, ill of being unable to discover his sufferers, asked all of them sign up to it.
Lyndsey Duff, the head of what3words’ -girl South African office were given quite emotional, she says, whilst she first heard approximately the possibilities of the generation two years ago. She become operating on the time for the South African excessive commission in London. There are numerous approaches in which South Africa was traditionally divided however one in all them, she indicates, “become always by maps”. While the whites-best areas of apartheid towns had street names, the black townships and rural villages like Relela have been simply inked in as grey areas. “For me, what3words is the ideal balance of desirable commercial enterprise and doing precise,” Duff says. She factors to the reality that iStore – the South African equal of Apple shop – is now the use of what3words for its deliveries, as well as to the capability of projects like Gateway health (which use the provider for a nominal charge). No longer simplest ecommerce, but additionally social development is being held up by the absence of “closing mile” technology a good way to take you wherein you want to get, Duff suggests.
At the ground, that remaining mile can nonetheless be pretty a hard promote. In Limpopo, as some other place, Gateway fitness is faced with the question of how to make the technology go viral. Dr Louw believes it takes a village. His strategy is to apply Relela as a pilot scheme for what3words, to expose its wonderful effect on maternal fitness, and to use that case observe to try to steer regional and countrywide authorities to undertake the address machine as popular.
In Relela, I joined him as he attempted to promote the advantages to perhaps the toughest crowd of all, the village’s hereditary leader and councilmen, who’ve had lots of white guys from Johannesburg come here and tell them how they are able to enhance the manner they’ve constantly achieved things. The chief’s big brick residence is at the pinnacle of a hill looking down the valley toward the Cloud Mountains. In overdue afternoon, we are invited to sit in his front yard, in which benches had been set up for a council meeting under a massive, spreading jacaranda tree. While Louw makes his pitch for each domestic in Relela to utilise a what3words deal with, he is met with silence. This, it’s far subsequently defined, is due to the fact the council assembly does not yet have a quorum. We sit down at the benches for a long, kick back hour while the sun goes down, waiting for the alternative councillors to return up the hill. Eventually while it’s far getting dark and 6 men are present, Louw repeats his pitch. Once more, silence.
I have a cross. “If a person changed into to come back to the village from outdoor,” I say, “how may they currently find the man or woman they desired to meet?”
That’s easy, Hendrik Mowane, the council secretary, suggests. “The village is split into zones, there are seven zones [each with about 4,000 people] and in each area there is one man who is aware of the households there. The vacationer might come to this guy’s house and he would take them to the region.”
“but,” I say, “what if a infant became ill, and wished an ambulance. Or a female changed into in distress, in labour? What if the sector leader became out?”
The councilmen speak those questions gravely. “Then that might be a problem,” Mowane concludes.
Louw indicates a video on his cellphone approximately how what3words may resolve that trouble. At this point, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a smile spreads throughout one or two of the councilmen’s faces. Any other assembly is organized, this one related to a huge display for the villagers, and lunch.
On the way backpedal from the chief’s residence, Louw shows this is development. He believes in a year or the argument may be received, and there could be a group of community drivers on hand to get women like Eunice Sewaphe to medical institution. “it’s far exciting instances,” he insists. There are 139 villages like Relela on this area. However once Relela has addressed itself, then – neighbours being neighbours – he hopes the opposite 138 will comply with. Beyond this valley, there are 4 billion humans without an deal with. Possibly technology can now put them on a map, three words at a time.