If you live in an economically developed country, you will more than likely know your address. Avaunt, for example, can be found at Unit 6, Albion Riverside Building, 8 Hester Road, London, SW11 4AX, but much of the world – up to 75% of the world’s population – isn’t nearly as well served by standard addresses, especially more rural areas and less developed countries. Seemingly well-addressed locations can also be problematic, with larger buildings having several entry points, resulting in visitors being forced to circuit several times before ending up exactly where they should.
As a music promoter, Chris Sheldrick discovered this problem while attempting to shepherd musicians between hotels and venues. Traditionally, the solution to the problem has been the geographic coordinate system, but a series of 18 digits is far from being easily memorable, especially for a rock band looking for their soundcheck. Thus the seeds were sown for an innovative new geocoding programme what3words, one of the more original addressing systems of recent times.
“Chris sat down with a friend of his, who happened to be a mathematics genius, to chat about the problem, and there was a dictionary on the table,” Giles Rhys-Jones, Chief Marketing Officer at what3words, tells Avaunt. They considered the alternatives to those 18 digits and, eschewing the arguably more-complex number-letter hybrids that others have tried, decided to use a combination of words. what3words does just that, dividing the globe into 57 trillion three metre squares, small enough to be useful, big enough to be practical. With a bank of 40,000 words and an algorithm, each of these squares has been ascribed an easily-memorised three word address.
“The squares are the same everywhere and they’re fixed, which means that the whole system works offline,” Rhys-Jones says. “You don’t need a data connection and you get exactly the same name for exactly the same square no matter what you’re looking on. Chris quickly realised the programme could do a lot more than just get bands to their gigs on time – drunk or not – so he packed his jobs in and started building the company.” The app itself is simply the word bank and the algorithm, which means it comes in at a tidy 10MB – slightly smaller than the 184MB required for Twitter on iOS devices.
While no-one is suggesting that these three.word.combinations will replace our postcodes, house numbers and street names, it certainly throws up some interesting applications. Avaunt’s front door is at before.vibe.banana, which could prove useful for directing deliveries to the right entrance. what3words can also be used at festivals and outdoor events to avoid mix-ups as people aim to meet at this sound desk or that rippling rainbow flag, while the Hash House Harriers running group and Mongolia’s Nomadic Off-Road motorcycle club already use the app to specify their meetup points and equipment drop-offs.
But it’s in parts of the world where street addressing is poor or non-existent that what3words steps into its own, improving and even potentially saving lives. “We’re being used in Deli by a motorbike taxi company who have built us into their app,” Rhys-Jones explains, “There’s a lot of violence in the city so you’ve got to be careful jumping into a taxi. This company uses female drivers for female passengers and wants to minimise the time women spend on the street, so it now uses our three word addresses for better pickup and drop off points.”
“We’re also being used in the townships of South Africa by an NGO called the Gateway Health Institute, which provides emergency vehicles,” he adds. “A lot of women in South Africa die through complications in childbirth because they struggle to give an ambulance directions to exactly where they are. This company has trained unemployed kids on our app, and they go to each house, write its three word address on a sticker and give it to the woman in the household who puts it in her bible. If there’s an issue or she needs to call an ambulance, she just gets her bible and reads the three word address over the telephone to the ambulance who can collect her.”
The 40,000-strong word bank has been curated carefully to strip out homophones like “hear” and “here” and to avoid any potentially offensive phrases, though with 57 trillion combinations there is naturally the odd quirk. “Audi found their three word advertising tagline ‘Vorsprung durch technik’ in the German version,” Rhys-Jones says. “It happened to be in the rainforest outside Sao Paulo, so they took one of their Q7s and drove it through the jungle and across the beaches in Brazil until they got to vorsprung.durch.technik.”
what3words is free to download, and free or low-cost also for humanitarian and aid groups, with the company making its money in business partnerships by licensing its API (application programming interface) or SDK (software development kit) to heavy business users like national post services and delivery companies. It’s also been integrated into other technology, from search engines and Garmin watches to drones and autonomous vehicles.
The company’s next move is to embrace the spoken word, as Rhys-Jones says, “It’s increasingly becoming obvious that voice is going to become the next big thing but the problem is that if you get into your car and type or say take me to Church Road, which of the 19 Church Roads in London would you like to go to? It becomes incredibly complex and difficult thing to do, but if I get into my car and say say take me to ‘table chair lamp’, there is only one in the world.
“Another problem with current addressing is if I say, ‘Take me to Westbourne Studios’, the pin drops in the centre of the building, and if I’m an autonomous vehicle I have no idea where I’m meant to be going. Now I can just give it a three word address of the three metre square just outside of the front door and the autonomous vehicle takes me there.”
what3words won’t completely replace your standard address book any time soon, and it’s not really designed to, but it successfully adds an extra layer to it that brings a growing multitude of uses at home, and especially abroad.