Creeping its way into international media and viral news is the story of Mongolia abandoning its existing address system and “adopting” the addressing system of the what3words app nationwide.
What3words is an online application that assigns a three-word “address” to any location on the planet based on GPS coordinates, with addresses like crass.liver.atomic and bliss.teeth.
exams. The address for The UB Post office on what3words is puzzles.unites.confident, a less than reassuring moniker for any newspaper.
The foreign stories paint this move, something said to take place next month despite not being covered at all in local media, as an exciting development in the digital revolution and some kind of groundbreaking gift to the nation.
It just sounds like clever marketing to me.
To set the record straight, addresses do exist in Mongolia. There are certainly gaps in the system in ger districts surrounding cities like Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan, and Erdenet, where people are less concerned about having a tidy address than they are about having access to fresh water, heat, paved roads, and sewage systems. Rural settlements are planned in much the same way ger districts are, with residences and new businesses sprawling out from the soum’s central local government structures and major marketplaces. Nomadic herders may have two to four camps a year, and those locations change based on environmental conditions from season to season. Mailing addresses are not a priority.
The house numbers and the addresses every urban resident currently has are not disappearing next month to be replaced by nouveau haiku. Some stories have mentioned that the what3words system could help nomadic herders open bank accounts. Herders have been able to open bank accounts without having permanent residences for over 25 years, since commercial banks first opened here and herders still outnumbered city folk.
The stories suggest that residential mail delivery exists here already, but that there are postal carriers walking the streets and scratching their heads wondering where to find recipients.
Residential delivery does not exist unless you pay for premium delivery service from Mongol
Post. Mail is delivered to businesses and large organizations, but you won’t find mailboxes in
Soviet-style block apartment buildings. Sometimes you’re lucky to find light bulbs in their stairwells.
Where are these ambulance drivers who are downloading what3words to their data-enabled smart phones to rapidly respond to emergency calls? They don’t exist.
Qz.com cites the example of a new address for the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, which already has an address that looks as American as apple pie. Their current address starts with the recipient’s name, a street and building number, a district, and a city. There’s nothing convoluted about that address. The what3words address for the embassy, the one that lands you within three square meters of their heavily guarded entrance: constants.stuffy.activism. Maybe a fitting replacement actually.
Mongol Post, the nation’s postal service provider, is privately owned. While it functions like a public service (beholden to state policy and full of the bureaucracy you’d expect of a Mongolian state agency) it apparently doesn’t have to run its decisions to uproot the address system by the public or the nation’s lawmakers. Thank goodness the uprooting isn’t actually happening, despite what major media outlets like The Guardian reports.
Hopefully no taxpayer money is being funneled into the software Mongol Post will have to purchase from what3words to turn its gibberish into actual GPS coordinates (and to reference them against actual mailing addresses already being used). Thankfully, Mongol Post
will get a discounted rate for the software based on Mongolia’s socio-economic indicators set by World Bank. If you’re going to change the world, make sure you run things by multinational financial institutions first.
With all of this media attention, let’s not forget about homegrown efforts to right Mongolia’s
urban planning mayhem. The Asia Foundation has been working with Ulaanbaatar’s residents
and city administrators on a comprehensive ger area mapping project since 2012. The effort
is a tremendous one. It is very much a citizen led effort and the project’s goals are shaped on ger area resident feedback. The people whose neighborhoods (khoroos) are being mapped decide what makes sense for them and how structured urban planning can enrich their lives. In 2014, after studying data on 87 khoroos in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts the website manaikhoroo.mn was launched, making interactive maps available in Mongolian and English.
The site is just a start, and has the potential to expand into a more user friendly resource. For now you can find maps detailing where public services are available, as well as data about crime and environmental concerns. Streets still have to be labeled, but be reminded, residents determined what information was most valuable to them. The project had many foreign and domestic partners, but was also certainly assisted by what Google has invested in improving the mapping of the city. Data available on Google Maps is considerably more
current and detailed than what’s now available from what3words.
Despite the headlines, is what3words in Mongolia really meant to improve people’s lives or meant to boost profits for a handful of businesses with an elite customer base?
I imagine the what3words plan was locked down in some meetings with local entrepreneurs
looking to expand the range of online shopping and delivery services, which have been growing in number in the past two years. The entire pitch must have been about profits. The official announcement of the adoption of what3words on the Mongol Post website is a press release written by what3words, and it directs those with inquiries to an email address for the British company’s media relations department. The press release is not available in Mongolian on the Mongol Post website, which is just as well, since the what3words app isn’t yet available in Mongolian anyhow. So, English speakers around the world have more information
about this “pioneering” step Mongolia is going to take than most Mongolians.
Rumor has it that China’s omnipresent digital marketplace Alibaba is looking to set up camp in
Mongolia. A dedicated delivery address system used just for app based and online businesses – many of which still rely on telephone operators to confirm transactions conducted online – could certainly help Mongol Post pay its monthly what3words bill, but why not just leave it to the app based businesses to invest in the software and try it out first?
The most popular and widely used apps and online data sharing platforms around the world
all started out with beta tests and incredibly niche user markets (think Twitter and Facebook). Why has Mongol Post put the country out on the world stage as some kind of backwards, address deprived country that is taking this blind leap into a digital future? This is not how technologically innovative countries put themselves out there. While foreign media outlets are loving the clickbait headline and the imagery of a herder standing outside their ger to wait for a drone delivery, are herders really part of the Amazon Prime demographic?
The Mongol Post logo gives a nod to one of the very first known postal delivery systems in the world, the relay messenger system used by Chinggis Khaan at the height of the Mongol
Empire. It was brilliant, and it worked. With horses. How is Mongol Post going to make a name for itself by launching this software system next month when their post offices still use handwritten ledgers for every transaction and parcel they handle?
People residing in Mongolia have access to post office boxes, and can also get mail delivered to their closest post office with their name and phone number included in the address. A postal worker gives you a call to let you know a package has arrived, and it sits there and patiently waits for you. It’s sort of sweet in a down home kind of way, but there are numerous deterrents to using the services of Mongol Post, aside from the fact that they don’t do free residential delivery.
Mailing a small parcel via Mongol Post from Darkhan to Ulaanbaatar can cost three to four
times more than what it costs to hand a box with the recipient’s phone number written on it to a taxi driver headed to Ulaanbaatar. The package that would have cost you 8,000 MNT in postage and taken three days to reach its recipient via Mongol Post costs you 2,000 MNT in the hands of a taxi driver and is delivered to the city in four hours. An extra 2,000 MNT will get the taxi driver to drop it off in the general vicinity of the recipient’s front door.
Multitasking taxi drivers are the swift couriers of modern Mongolia. They risk life and limb to
courier what they’ve been entrusted with, flying down the pothole filled roads of our crumbling road network. They practice a code of honor; promising to deliver items safely with no contract signed, just a phone number saved to your phone and a license plate number and vehicle description remembered.
When renegade transport outpaces and outperforms the very much analog national postal
delivery service, I say use.what.works.