Street names and numbers might be what we’re used to when it comes to locating landmarks across the world, but one company plans to revolutionize the way humans map out locations in an ambitious addressing system known as what3words — or, giving every 3×3 square meter space on earth a set of 3 unique word combinations, like apple.banana.orange. GPS coordinates and crazy numbers and post codes be damned, according to this whole new method of navigation. what3words’ Giles Rhys Jones explains.
How did what3words come to be?
Chris Sheldrick, our CEO, spent 10 years organizing live music events around the world and constantly faced the huge logistical frustrations that came with poor addressing. He resorted to using the latitude and longitude coordinate system to be precise, but realized that human beings aren’t designed to input 18 numbers without errors. At every event, without fail, trucks carrying equipment and musicians themselves simply didn’t arrive where they were supposed to be.
A particular low point was an event that sent bands and equipment across various hillsides near Rome because the “address” they were given took everyone to different places.
Chris discussed the idea of a more usable and less error-prone version of the latitude and longitude coordinate system with a mathematician friend, who subsequently wrote an early version of the what3words algorithm on the back on an envelope.
The pair quickly realized this algorithm could do more than help musicians get to gigs on time, and the company was founded by the pair and two other friends in London in March, 2013.
And how does it work exactly?
what3words is a really simple way to talk about any location in the world. We have given every 3×3 square meters on the planet a fixed and unique three-word address. It can work offline with no data connection and in multiple languages. Words are easier to remember and communicate than GPS, and more accurate than street addressing. And of course, as many travelers know, some of the most amazing places don’t have an address at all. We are not a map or a navigation system — we are an addressing system. We convert GPS coordinates that are difficult to use into simple words.
We are being used to deliver parcels in the favelas of Brazil and packages to rural England. We have just partnered with the Mongol Post, La Poste Cote d”Ivoire and Postal Service Sint Maarten as addressing systems, and we are used by the Red Cross and the UN for disaster relief.
There are plenty of applications in the travel space. Everyone has experienced being lost when traveling, not finding their friends at a festival, their Uber driver not finding them, or spending time wandering the streets trying to find an Airbnb, or being late for an event because their map app dropped the pin in the middle of the building rather than the entrance. These events, and worse, happen everyday to millions of people all over the world.
Interesting. What does this mean for travelers? How can they use what3words to plan their trips?
Losing yourself traveling, doesn’t mean getting lost anymore! Many travel guides are now listing three-word addresses on their contact pages, and you can ask the hotel or place you are staying at for the three-word address of their entrance. You can also just use our free app to make sure you can meet easily with your friends. Nomadic off-road motorbiking adventures use us to specify their campsites on the vast Mongolian steppes. You can also navigate to any three-word address on the planet with Navmii, the largest offline driving navigation app in the world.
How would you deal with a vertical city like Hong Kong, where everyone lives on top of each other? Are there any plans to make what3words three-dimensional at some point?
Our intention is not to replace address systems, but to add a level of specificity where it is required, and be a simple way to refer to locations where street addressing is not present or not accurate enough — like when meeting friends at a festival or a large stadium.
In that respect, those who live in apartments or office complexes might specify the three-word address for the front entrance or the delivery entrance along with their street address and apartment number. For example, part of our office building is under a freeway fly-over and the street address drops the pin on the outside lane, meaning that navigation apps get confused and many people get lost. By using the what3words combo index.home.raft, we can easily share the 3×3 square meter space just outside the front entrance.
It is important to note that we are a non-hierarchical system. For example, we have placed the location 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 2 miles away from you in New York, and the other is in Australia. If you make a slight error with latitude/longitude and you might go to a hill-side in Rome.