What3Words and Gateway are creating a safer community

Using an innovative global mapping system, a British company is helping to bring healthcare to some of South Africa’s most difficult-to-find places.

plans.backer.toned. An example of a rural KwaNdengezi address using what3words. (Image: what3words)

Sulaiman Philip

KwaNdengezi, outside Durban, is a community of 54,000. It is a collection of brick buildings and self-built homes of zinc sheeting, recycled bricks and wood. What roads do exist do not have names and unless you live in the sprawling 14km² township, it is easy to get lost.

Thembinkosi Lesley Dladla, an Emergency Management Rescue Services (EMRS) shift supervisor, explained: “As an EMRS [officer], my work doesn’t have any boundaries – we work the whole of Durban. It’s very difficult in the townships, because they don’t have road names written, and they also don’t have house numbers.”

Ambulances can take hours to reach patients. Often a whole day will pass before an ambulance can find patients. They, as well as community health workers, have to rely on residents to give them directions. For the community, descriptive directions are the easiest ways to navigate the chaotic streets of the township.

Take the directions Dladla gave to the Gateway blog, for example: “Take a left at the church, then right at the school and it’s a red door.” These can be misunderstood or misremembered, require detailed local knowledge and take a long time to explain. There are also no street lights, so using landmarks to find your way is almost impossible at night.

Gateway and what3words

A local health NGO, Gateway Health Institute, is piloting a project in KwaNdengezi that will map the entire township. For the first time residents will have an address they can use when calling for medical help.

The NGO is using what3words, a global online mapping system, to create unique addresses for the township. The system breaks the globe into a grid of 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares. Each has a pre-assigned and fixed three-word address.

Gateway’s fieldworkers helped residents identify their locations on a satellite map and then printed their three-word addresses on plastic signs that were attached to their homes. The addresses are registered in a database, and the NGO is able to identify what medical services are needed where. The mapping service has helped to increase the number of pregnant women receiving home visit antenatal care. When medical help is needed it can be dispatched to a mapped location and ambulance crews know where to go to provide life-saving assistance.

Residents are known to keep copies of their what3words addresses in their bibles. (Image: What3words)

Beyond providing addresses to homes in KwaNdengezi, Gateway is also mapping community assets such as local government centres, clinics and pumps that provide clean drinking water. The aim is to build a detailed map for the residents that can be used by businesses and the government to improve the lives of the community.

The project was begun by Dr Coenie Louw, founder and director of Gateway. “For those living in informal settlements and rural areas, ‘location’ presents the biggest challenge in providing health services and products. In these areas demand is high but delivery is poor. What3words changes all that. By providing every property with a unique address, residents now have a simple and reliable way to identify their homes.”

Addressing a problem

Gateway runs community health services in disadvantaged communities across the country. The most important medical services it offers are delivery of medicines and emergency transport for women in labour: 50% of births in KwaNdengezi take place at home; before the project began an ambulance could take up to four hours to reach a woman in distress.

At first, Louw tried using phone masts to triangulate locations but he found that location could be up to 3km from a person needing assistance. “I spent two years trying to find a way to actually pinpoint the location of a pregnant woman in distress.”

Dr Coenie Louw, founder of Gateway Health Institute, introduced what3words to KwaNdengezi. (Image:what3words)

What3words is the perfect solution, which Louw found while doing internet research. A three-word address is perfect in areas such as KwaNdengezi because it is easy to remember and simple to share via message or SMS. What3words uses USSD technology and is a free download to any phone. It also works even if the resident does not have available data.

Chris Sheldrick, CEO and co-founder of what3words told Gateway: “Helping them [Gateway] to overcome one of their most fundamental barriers for delivering these services is something we’re very proud of. Addressing these communities is the first step to improving their economic and social development, and indeed to changing lives.”

The project is also being used to alleviate unemployment in the township — 11 previously unemployed youngsters were trained as fieldworkers to help residents identify their addresses and to help load location and health information on Gateway’s database.

How what3words works

The system is available in 14 languages and is used in 170 countries by NGOs, government services and businesses. In essence, every centimetre of the globe has a unique address that is easier to remember and communicate, is more accurate and is simpler to use than directions based on landmarks.

marginal.cabin.gearbox is the what3words address for the Brand South Africa office. Neighbouring The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, a short walk away, is senior.blinks.punk. Similar word combinations are not placed close to each other. If you spell a word incorrectly, the system will give you suggestions for the best possible location.

An estimated 4 billion people have no address. For these people it is impossible to open a bank account or get deliveries or, as in the case of the residents of KwaNdengezi, be reached in an emergency. What3words is designed to improve the lives of these people.

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