Traditional addresses don’t work.
That’s the argument of London startup what3words, which says such addresses are expensive to provide, restrictive and prone to error.
The company’s answer is to divide the world into 57 trillion squares and give them each quirky, three-word addresses that what3words says can track down pretty much any place on the planet, from homes in an Indian slum to a refugee camp in Uganda to an alleyway in Hong Kong.
“It’s user-friendly GPS,” said Giles Jones, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Everybody’s got a story of where location has not been good enough.”
The idea came from what3words CEO Chris Sheldrick, a former live music organizer. Sheldrick often grew frustrated at poor addressing when he needed to drop off equipment at a convention center or direct a band where to go, Jones said.
Addresses “either didn’t exist, they weren’t accurate enough, or they were really difficult to communicate,” Jones added.
Sheldrick started using GPS coordinates to fix that problem, but the numeric combinations were difficult to remember or share with others.
One day, about six years ago, he and a friend stumbled onto a solution.
“There was a dictionary on the table, and they were like, ‘I wonder how many different words it would take to build a system using words,’” Jones said.
The answer is roughly 40,000, strung together in groups of three. It works like this: Say you want to meet a friend at the mall, but there are multiple entrances and no easy way to explain where you are. By using the what3words mapping app, you can mark out the specific building entrance and tap on a virtual square to conjure up a random phrase fixed to that location, like “caramel.kingdom.signature” — an actual phrase tied to a location in Hong Kong.
The app then lets you open up the address in another mapping provider, such as Google Maps or Apple Maps, which can direct you there.
The app, which started with only English as an option, has since expanded to include 36 languages, including Korean, Japanese and Mandarin.
The end of traditional addresses?
One of the company’s greatest success stories has been in Mongolia, a vast landlocked country with a vibrant nomadic population.
What3words has become an official addressing system there, Jones said, which means the company’s three-word phrases are now used by the Mongolian postal services, its banks, taxis, Airbnb owners and even Pizza Hut.
Many people around the world still live without an address, which has allowed the startup to find compelling opportunities to reach new users and demonstrate its service.
For example, the company recently worked with a refugee settlement of over 100,000 people in Uganda to ensure everyone could get deliveries and map out as many as 50,000 buildings.
“Every single person in that refugee camp has now got an address,” Jones said. He added that those addresses are recognized by the local health agency, which makes it easier for medical workers to find people.
The app can also operate offline, making it easier for first responders to deploy in remote locations without internet