24 Feb This Startup Is Renaming Every Place On Earth
Like many startups, what3words, a London-based company offering a new approach to global addressing, was born out of a frustration. Having worked in the music industry for 10 years, booking bands and sending venue addresses, CEO Chris Sheldrick knew well how a small error could put you halfway across the city. GPS coordinates were more accurate, but they are also too complicated and unwieldy.
In underdeveloped countries, where inconsistencies abound and many don’t even have addresses, it’s even worse. According to the company, 50% of people who currently live in cities don’t have an address. “Addresses have been with us for decades and decades, but they were produced to sort mail,” says Sheldrick. “In the year 2016, we don’t need to be using these ambiguous, inaccurate text references. There is an easy way of doing this.”
That easier way is a system that Sheldrick and three fellow cofounders developed: an algorithm that gives every 3 square meters (or about 10 square feet) in the world an address using a unique combination of three words (i.e., table-chair-spoon). In 2013, they turned their system into a company, what3words, and released an app. The app overlays Google Maps with the three-word addresses, converting coordinates into words. It’s much easier to use and remember than GPS, and more accurate than an address.
The company developed the algorithm in about six months, but it took an additional year to tweak and perfect it. The real hurdle was creating a list of 25,000-plus words and hiring linguists to comb through and weed out any profanities or words with multiple spellings (i.e., here/hear). When searching for a three-word location, the app will auto-suggest options, even if the words are misspellings or mistakes.
Once they had mapped the whole world in three word-addresses in English, Sheldrick and his team translated the app for 11 different languages and counting. The idea is that you should be able to use it wherever you are, in your native language. So if you’re in Spain, for instance, but you are an English user, the country will still be mapped using English words.
Of course, the prospect of what3words becoming as widespread as the current addressing system is dependent on its adoption by governments, individuals, and businesses alike. It can be used as a plug-in on business and individuals’ websites, to be used for tracking, delivery, and logistics.
For example Pollinate Energy, an Indian solar lighting company, has used the service to delivery solar lights to people in remote areas who don’t have street addresses. The UN uses the app for disaster recovery, and the Mongolian post office now uses the system instead of traditional addresses—which only part of the country had.
Another major advantage of what3words is that it offers a precise global address reference system that can be used easily by everyone. The company is working with Audi to develop a voice-recognition system so that you can say three words when you hop in the car and it will direct you to that exact spot. Sheldrick also envisions its use with drone delivery, where giving a street address might mean getting a package delivered to your roof. Imagine if you could specify a 10-square-foot area for delivery—whether it’s in your backyard or on your stoop.
As Sheldrick notes, the geospatial industry is worth an estimated $150 billion annually, yet the current default address system is still an imperfect science. His company has built the technology to offer a completely new system for mapping and navigating, with absolutely no learning curve—now all it needs is for more people to use it.