Time to Get a New Address?


I’ve long been fascinated by unique identifier systems, because while often hard to implement, they can provide enormous value and constitute a great business opportunity. We’re all familiar with the D&B DUNS system, but there are far more identifier systems in use in vertical markets than you might expect. Don’t, for example, try to publish a book without an ISBN number. Similarly, don’t try to get into the advertising specialties business without an ASI number.

Identifier systems are not just for companies. They exist for people too. Physicians in the U.S. have government-issued unique identifiers. LexisNexis has implemented a similar private sector solution for lawyers called the International Standard Lawyer Number (ISLN). And we’re all of course familiar with Social Security numbers. For geographic locations, think about such identifiers as ZIP codes and their value in identifying specific geographic areas.

The power of unique identifiers is that that they serve as a sort of numeric lingua franca. Everyone agrees that a specific company, person or location is identified by a single permanent identifier. This removes ambiguity. It makes all sorts of transactions easier and more efficient. It allows for better and more precise record-keeping. And in this data-centric age, it makes matching of datasets easier and more precise. If everyone can agree on a unique identifier system, all sorts of things happen more easily and smoothly. Needless to say, the operator of the identifier system is in a powerful and lucrative position.

But how ambitious can you get with a non-governmental unique identifier system? After all, if you can’t mandate adoption of your identifiers, you’ve got to build voluntary participation. That’s tough in a narrow, vertical market. Imagine trying to build participation on a broad-based, global basis.

That’s why we were intrigued to run across perhaps the most ambitious attempt at a unique identifier system we have seen. It’s operated by a company called What3Words. Its goal is to assign a unique identifier to every inch of the planet, in 3 meter square blocks. Further, much like the Internet’s Domain Name System, What3Words assigns each block a three-word name instead of numbers, believing the system will be easier to use with words rather than hard to remember random numbers or latitude and longitude coordinates.

You may be saying, “cool, but who needs this?” Well, start with obvious examples of aid agencies trying to serve areas of rural Africa, where no neat systems like ZIP codes exist. Indeed, the founders of Just3Words are quick to note that 75% of the population of the earth essentially don’t exist because they have no physical address. Similarly, hikers and travelers will benefit from being able both to find and describe remote areas. And with much talk of delivery by drones in the near future, a uniform global geo-identifier could be very useful. A consistent system also benefits government administration, development of consistent and comparable statistics, and much more. Those of us who regularly deal with international addresses know they are an inconsistent mess, and these are addresses in advanced, developed countries. There are vast swaths of the planet that still lack addressing systems at all.

It’s a big project, but there’s a big need. And hopefully this brief overview inspires some big thinking about the potential of unique identifiers to make all kinds of activities take place more smoothly and efficiently, with some of those productivity savings accruing to the operator of the identifier system.