By Ariana Crisafulli
Before what3words was founded, CEO Chris Sheldrick spent 10 years organizing live music events around the world. Due to poor street addressing, he also spent 10 years face-palming when musicians and equipment didn't show up at the right venue, consistently, and without fail.
Sheldrick was never amused to discover that equipment for one event had been strewn across multiple hillsides near Rome because the addresses provided to the delivery drivers took them to different places, or that a keyboard player did a sound check at the wrong wedding in Birmingham. He tried using the latitude and longitude coordinate system to avoid these logistical disasters, but soon realized that human beings weren’t designed to input 18 numbers without errors.
And then a lightbulb clicked on. Wouldn’t it be easier if there was a consistent, worldwide point-reference system that was easy to remember? After discussing the idea with a mathematician friend, an even brighter lightbulb clicked on. This point-reference system could be used for more than just helping musicians get to gigs on-time.
what3words was born.
Addressing the world
what3words is a revolutionary geocoding system that maps the world into 57 trillion squares, each 3-meters by 3-meters and identified by three, easy-to-remember words. In regions with poor street addressing, anyone from travelers to delivery drivers and aid workers can use one of these three-word addresses to pinpoint and arrive at their desired location.
“Our intention is not to replace address systems, but to add a level of specificity where it is required in a similar way to a post code or zip code, but much more accurate," says Giles Rhys Jones, Chief Marketing Officer at what3words.
Imagine this: you've just been dropped off at the bus station in a new town and you need to find the hostel you booked the day before. The town is an old one with winding streets and cresting hillsides, and what's more, terrible address systems. You type in the address of the hostel in a map app on your phone but the app draws a blank. Now, imagine if you could type in three words that would pinpoint a 3-meter by 3-meter square in front of the hostel entrance. You could stop wandering those impossible hills and set down your heavy backpack sooner.
In order to avoid confusion, Jones notes that the company intentionally placed similar-sounding words at greater geographical distances from each other.
“For example, we have placed table.chair.damp very far from table.chair.lamp – it means if you type it in incorrectly or hear or write it down wrong, both the system and a human can see that one is maybe two miles away from you in New York and the other is in Australia,” Jones says.
This means that incorrect addresses are easily identified, whereas with a slight error in latitude and longitude, you could easily end up delivering 2,000 cases of beer for a big party to a pasture of befuddled sheep.
helping More Than Travelers
Currently 135 countries lack an adequate address system. On a grand scale, what3words is not just about ending the plight of the traveler unable to find an avant-garde microbrewery in the vast hills of Bavaria. Consequences of poor address systems can sometimes mean that remote businesses fail due to undelivered packages or lack of customers. It can also mean that vital aid cannot reach people in need. Jones says the benefits of better addressing are broad.
"It is everything from logistics and mail, to travel, sport, aid and emergency response," says Jones. "what3words offers a much needed solution in some developing parts of the world and offers huge efficiencies in places that have more established, but still inaccurate addressing systems.”
And what3words is already used in many industries and in more than 170 countries. The system is being used by the United Nations to report disasters, by The World Bank to monitor cholera outbreaks, and by the International Red Cross to make finding health centers around the world simpler. A Hedonist’s Guide To... has pinpointed the coolest bars, shops, and hotels in over 50 cities with three-word addresses, so if you did indeed want to find that avant-garde pub in Bavaria, you can do it with three simple words.
Apps have made the three-word system available to you on your smartphones. If you’re interested in going to Rio de Janeiro, for example, you can find the three-word address of your rental on brazilrentmyhouse.com and easily find your way there with RioGo.
If your tastes are a little broader, no worries there. You can now navigate to any three-word address on the planet with Navmii. This is a pretty neat concept because it means that you don’t have to choose an address as your destination. If you wanted to camp on a patch of land called what.three.words, that three-meter square is yours for the finding.
Things get really interesting when you have a population of nomads too. In Mongolia, for example, 30% of its three million citizens are nomadic and roam an area of more than 1.5 million square kilometers. Mongol Post is tasked with the daunting service of delivering mail to nomadic peoples using a poor address system that often include descriptive directions such as “opposite the gas station, near the Internet Café.”
Adequate address systems are integral to economic development, and as Mongolia is a rapidly emerging market, they need a functioning address system to sustain their economic growth and attract investment. Unfortunately, putting in street addressing systems takes decades and costs tens of millions — something a developing economy may struggle to afford. Fortunately, using three words as a reference point for businesses, citizens, and government entities means that packages arrive at the correct locations, customers can find businesses, operations can go as planned, and the economy can thrive.
Looking to the future with three simple words
“Our aim is to make the world a better place with simpler addressing,” says Jones. This means turning the three-word reference system into a worldwide standard so that word.word.word is written on letters and recognized on all devices, stickers, social networks, and search platforms.
It is amazing to think that in today’s highly-connected, globalized world, we still have issues with something as simple as delivering a package. what3words is on a mission to change that. The world is a wide, wide place, but now it can be discovered with just three simple words.
Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.