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Signs of transformation: How What3words is improving healthcare in South Africa

What3words is improving healthcare in South AfricaA collaboration and a printer are saving lives in a small South African province.


These are perhaps the three most common words one encounters when reading about African health systems. The health and well-being of most of the Africans remain plagued by a relentless burden of infectious diseases, persisting social disparities and inadequate human resources to provide care for a growing population. Additionally, millions of people live in informal settlements without reliable address.

KwaNdengezi is one such province of South Africa. The province has a high incidence of health issues including HIV, AIDS, TB and childhood malnutrition. HIV infection amongst pregnant women is at 37%, which is 10% above the national average. It has a population of around 54,000 people and its 11,000 homes range from solid brick buildings to self-built shacks. KwaNdengezi has an extremely chaotic layout — finding a specific location, or telling someone where one lives, almost impossible. The majority of the criss-crossing networks of roads have no official names, and there are no signages. This inability to define a location of — homes, businesses and properties — means people are essentially invisible to the system. They struggle to access basic services, amenities and receive medical care.

However, an NGO — Gateway Health Institute — is committed to provide healthcare and community services in disadvantaged areas. Gateway Health runs programs to deliver medicine, supply emergency transport for women in labor, and identify hot spots for human rights abuses. But without proper addresses, many of these programs struggle. Not having a proper addressing system can be very challenging and can take almost a full day for an ambulance to reach a person in need. Having to navigate via word-of-mouth, without local landmarks or sign posts, medical experts are left with an almost impossible task of finding patients quickly. It is like finding a needle in a haystack.

What3words is improving healthcare in South Africa
The what3words address-printing machine

Enter what3words

Three word addresses proved to be an ideal solution for KwaNdengezi. A location reference system based on a global grid of 57 trillion 3 x 3m squares, the what3words addressing system works on the system where each square has a pre-assigned, fixed and unique three word address.

“People make errors — lots of errors — and errors are easy to make and hard to spot when it comes to long alphanumeric codes. what3words is optimized to recognize and correct mistakes by both the sender and receiver,” explains Giles Rhys Jones, CMO, what3words. The addressing system is simple and easy to communicate than GPS, and more accurate than street addressing and much quicker to roll out than other geo-coding or addressing projects.

A local resident of KwaNdengezi with his three word address

Jones further adds, “We remove words that sound similar (e.g. sale and sail), and have shuffled similar sounding three word locations as far away from each other as possible, so it’s obvious if you have made a mistake. The AutoSuggest system helps you identify any mistakes by suggesting the similar sounding location closer to you than the one that may be 400 miles away.”

The three word addresses cover every part of the township, including homes, community centers and facilities like water pumps; and each square has a pre-assigned and fixed address. As each address is just three words, it is easy to remember, and simple to communicate. A problem that once seemed insurmountable can be solved using the three simple words address.

A community connected

Dr Coenie Louw, Director, Gateway Health and his team of 11 local field workers are helping the residents of KwaNdengezi to discover their addresses through the what3words mobile app, which can be used anywhere, without the need for a data connection. It is free to download, and the small file size means that it works even on the most basic smartphones. “In this work, a team of 11 local young people is working with us that are employed with Gateway Health. Our team has worked with Dr Louw to train these people to help residents discover and use their three-word addresses,” explains Jones.

As each address is just three words, it is easy to remember, and simple to communicate. A problem that once seemed unsurmountable can be solved using the three simple words address

Furthermore, the team has taken a big leap by using a portable address-printing machine. “They are our advocates within the community as they intuitively understand how better addressing can help improve their quality of life. They help to explain the value and ease of use of three word addresses,” says Jones. Built as a collaboration with what3words, the colorful cart prints three-word addresses onto eye-catching and durable signs that residents can display on the outside of their houses. Using a tablet to display an aerial map of the township, the resident identifies their house, and simply zooms in until they can see which square of the grid their front door sits in. A three-word address sign is then printed on the spot for the resident.

By means of these addresses residents are registered in a database, creating a medical and community record for the first time. Above all, this is not a temporary solution, or a gimmick, these addresses will never change. People in KwaNdengezi can now communicate their locations and get access to various government welfare schemes.

Thembinkosi Lesley Dladla, KZN EMRS Paramedic in KwaNdengezi says, “The system of what3words is going to make our lives so much easier. We will be able to get to our patients in time. It is good to know we are able to do the right thing.”

The what3words system is gradually becoming more engrained in the KwaNdengezi community. Gateway Health is identifying the three-word addresses of critical community assets including local government centres, medical facilities and clean water pumps. These are also being given printed signs, and will be listed on a detailed community map, helping the community to locate essential services and improve the standard of living. “hope.change.enabled” is the new address for which KwaNdengezi has already sought for!

“We are pioneers — this township is where it’s going to start and then spread all over the country. I am very proud to be a part of this new project,” sums up Vusani Mbanjwa, Ward Councillor.