Many of you are probably asking yourselves what these three words have in common. Why are they strung together when they have seemingly no correlation? The answer may be found in the work of a technology known as what3words. This app and website were founded by Chris Sheldrick, Jack Waley-Cohen, and Mohan Ganesalingam in 2013. Below, I have posted a screenshot of a page on the what3words website.  As you can see, the image displays a map of Boston College and its surrounding area.  At the bottom, you will notice the same three words, listed in the title: “Edges.Author.Cove.”

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Just in case it is unclear, these three words represent the Boston College location, or more specifically, a 3 by 3 meter piece of the Boston College campus. What3words has given other well-known destinations three-word identifiers as well. For example, the front door of the White House is live.linen.slower, and Old Faithful is communal.frolic.pizzeria.

In the words of its developers: “what3words is a really simple way to talk about location. We have divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3-word address. It means anyone can accurately find any location and share it more quickly, easily and with less ambiguity than any other system. The service can be used via the free mobile app or online map. It can also be built into any other app, platform or website, with just a few lines of code.”

While the need for this technology may not be clear initially, the three founders have identified many good use cases. The idea came to Chris Sheldrick in 2013 while he was working in the music industry. Frequently, he dealt with bands struggling to find the right location, and equipment getting lost in transport. On one occasion, his band even sound-checked at the wrong wedding. He realized that the classic system of addressing was just not practical for everyday needs. “Road names are repetitive. Homes and businesses are often located far from the center of their postcode. And much of the world simply isn’t addressed – from informal settlements to the park where you’ve planned to meet friends or the precise location where you’re waiting for the cab to collect you.” How many times have we run around trying to meet with an uber? How often do you struggle to find your friends in a public place with no specific address?

In the midst of their research, what3words found some interesting statistics: 75% of the world suffers from poor addressing or none at all. The other 25% still lacks universal coverage. The UN estimates that 4 billion people lack a reliable way to address their homes. In the context of our lives, poor addressing can result in added expenses, inconveniences, and everyday frustration. In areas where addressing is unreliable or nonexistent, however, the inability to define “here” or “there” can have much graver consequences.  People are unable to “open bank accounts, register a birth, or access electricity or water supplies.” Emergency responders may not locate the individual who is hurt, and disaster relief may not be able to deliver supplies. Without an address, you can become invisible.    

So why three words? The founders agreed the system needed to look distinctly different from the old system, but it needed to remain precise. Latitude and longitude (GPS coordinates), however, would be too complicated for everyday use.  So instead, the trio decided to divide the world into 3 by 3-meter squares (57 trillion to be exact) and gave each one a unique combination of three dictionary words. If you’d like to see some math, they used 40,000 words. Cube that and you get 64 trillion combinations…just enough to name the 57 trillion squares.  

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While the idea took form in English, the developers knew it was vital that users were able to use the app in their native language, especially considering many unaddressed regions are located in non-English speaking areas.  Currently, the technology is available in 14 languages, but more are being added consistently.  

As I had not heard of this technology until recently, I was curious to see how it is currently being used.  In Mongolia, the national post service has adopted what3words. It is now delivering mail to many people’s homes for the first time. In another case, the UN is using the technology for disaster relief. By geotagging photos with what3words, they can deliver aid to exactly the right location. On the other end of the spectrum, Domino’s Pizza is using the system in the Caribbean to ensure they can find customer’s homes in time to deliver hot pizza.  Car companies, such as Land Rover and Mercedes, are implementing what3words into their navigation systems so that their drivers always arrive at the right destination. Individual travelers, travel sites, certain businesses are using what3words to help travelers explore the world without getting lost and find amazing places that don’t have addresses.

In my opinion, this technology has incredible value and widespread applicability. It has the potential to make a real difference in terms of helping people, but also in terms of spurring economic growth. It is a testament to the power of data and technology made simple. Do you think what3words could eradicate the traditional addressing system used today? What would it take for widespread acceptance/adoption, particularly by authorities and governments?

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  1. mpduplesmba · ·

    Thanks for the introduction to this cool technology, I had never heard of it before. The example of how the founders came up with the idea reminds me of my days as a sales engineer where part of my job included exhibiting at trade shows. I would arrive the day before the show to set up our booth and it was always a crapshoot if our equipment delivered to our booth location. More often than not I would spend half a day searching for our stuff and it could end up being the next aisle over or on the other side of the exhibition hall. A geo-tagging technology like this could have saved lots of headaches.
    It’s strange to think about postal addresses as a technology, but as you said, this has potential widespread use. I don’t see what3words replacing the existing address systems in the US and other First World countries, but it definitely makes sense in Second and Third World countries with less established systems in place. In the US I think it’s more likely the tech of what3words will be incorporated into, and run behind the scenes, in other apps we use, such as Uber, pizza deliveries, and other meet-up applications.

  2. kikinitwithraf · ·

    Just like @mpduplesmba this too is my first exposure to this technology. And while it may not “replace” our address system, I do however see companies like Amazon utilizing this tech to further expedite their shipping processes/services. This system is essentially proving an address for anywhere in the world. Think of how many remote destinations can easily discovered?

  3. jamessenwei · ·

    Hey Molly, thanks for sharing this interesting technology with us. I’m already sold on this idea; I think it can be very useful. Address can be confusing sometimes. When I was living in 66, I once called an Uber to send me home. I wasn’t being careful and set the address to 66 Commonwealth Ave Boston and it took me to some random brownstone in Back Bay, miles away from where I was supposed to go! Would have made it some much more clearer if Uber implements what3words. I agree that this can be useful for sending people location for discover travel sites. I think it could also be cool it this was fully integrated with drone delivery so that it would be able to deliver things more accurately. I can kind of see the scenario of someone’s house being named something unfortunate though.

  4. Jobabes121 · ·

    A great post! You know, as I read the first two paragraphs of the blog, I was like “this app is so stupid and unnecessarily confusing.” 40,000 words made me go even more crazy. However, after finishing the read, my thoughts changed, mainly because I just thought of so many instances where the 140 Comm Ave address with specific dorm name Fitzpatrick still made delivery drivers go all the way down to Stayer, not upper. I assume the case would be even more serious with larger institutions and places where address is not specified. Even in Korea, where public transportation is well established, sometimes the address can get extremely confusing. If this service becomes universalized, I believe it can add huge value to our everyday life. If you think about it, the GPS coordinates are even more confusing for common people, and it’s just a matter of universality for this program to succeed. What’s left for the company to do is focusing on the marketing side of the business, with strategies on building partnerships with other destination-oriented business, to inform its presence.

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