By 28 May 2020 | Categories: news


With the coronavirus pandemic capturing the world’s attention, the spotlight has understandably shifted from innovation to life saving measures. This week, though an announcement from Vodacom showed that the two don’’t have to be mutually exclusive.

More specifically, the company announced that it would zero-rating the lifesaving addressing technology, what3words, for its more than 43 million subscribers across South Africa.

At a virtual media event this week, it was pointed out that, according to the United Nations, 75% of countries in the world have a poorly maintained addressing system – or none at all. This is an issue that South Africa knows well, with large parts of the country still lacking spatial planning. 

Life or death

Beyond being an inconvenience when expecting a delivery, this is a far graver issue for South Africans living in rural areas or informal settlements when it comes to emergencies.

“Without an address - or in the event of calling from an unaddressed area - explaining to emergency services where to find you can be extremely difficult,” explained Lyndsey Duff, the country manager for what3words South Africa.

“Callers are often only able to provide vague descriptions or references to landmarks, which means emergency services waste critical time and resources trying to locate the person in need of help,” she elaborated.

Technology to the rescue

However, the what3words technology, which is available as an app or online map, addresses this (no pun intended) by divided the world into a grid of 3m squares, and giving each square a unique combination of three words.

The what3words address. ///finishes.aura.moves, for example, will take you to the front door of the what3words office in Johannesburg.

In an emergency, a what3words address can be given to the call handler to identify precisely where help is needed.

No data? No problem.

The free what3words app works offline, but when a caller does not have the app, emergency services text a link to the what3words emergency find me website which tells them the what3words address for the location. The caller then simply must read the three words on the screen of their smartphone or data enabled phone.

Naturally, as with pretty much any digital service, having the app on one''s device is preferable.  Of course the problem has historically been that users without data find themselves out of luck with regards to accessing data dependant services.

To answer this concern and make the service more accessible, Vodacom has now zero-rated the what3words emergency find me website which means that South Africans can access the website for free with no concerns over data costs or data running out. 

“For over 25 years Vodacom has been connecting South Africans using technology to bring about a positive change and improve lives. The what3words technology forms parts of an existing eco-system of services such as the Vodacom SMS Emergency Service for deaf or speech impaired customers and the GBV Command Centre which deals with issues around gender-based violence,” commented Jorge Mendes, Vodacom Consumer Business Unit Chief Officer.

Taking names, Saving lives

Duff enthused that the what3words service is currently being used by the National Sea Rescue Institute, Gauteng Emergency Medical Services, and the Western Cape Emergency Medical Services, with what3words already having been used to locate over 1300 callers since early March this year.

“The what3words platform has already saved lives by helping our responders know exactly where the emergency is in our region,” confirmed JP von Benecke, Deputy Director Communications and Advanced Life Support Paramedic at Gauteng EMS.

“Some of the informal settlements we cover don’t have street names, and locating the caller is incredibly challenging for our call handlers and teams on the ground. what3words and Vodacom have helped emergency services like ours move away from ‘where are you?’ ‘what can you see?’ and progress to ‘we know where you are and we’re on our way,’” noted JP von Benecke, Deputy Director Communications and Advanced Life Support Paramedic at Gauteng EMS.

He confirmed that the what3words platform had already saved lives by helping responders know exactly where the emergency is in their region.

Small victories

“These services play a vital role in our society. Through the use of innovative and life-saving technology, we can assist the most vulnerable citizens in their greatest times of need”, concluded Mendes.

And certainly, as we battle the Coronavirus pandemic, along with the various life-threatening impacts it is spawning, every life saved during these times, whether from the virus or not, is a victory in its own right.


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