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These three words could save you a lot of time on the road

what3words has created an addressing system that works with just three words to precisely pinpoint any specific location on earth, be it on land or the ocean (Source: Shutterstock)

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Nearly all of us have felt the pain of having an address that is hard to locate. Every day across the world, difficult-to-navigate addresses result in the frustration of thousands of people over undelivered e-commerce purchases, food deliveries, and even standard post deliveries.

The scenario isn’t quite different with freight hauling either. Assume you are trying to deliver a pallet to an industrial estate or a large office complex. The street address that you have might show you the building but you have no idea where to deliver it exactly - it could be the front entrance, the back gate, or even a designated spot in the complex. As they say, the devil is in the details.

what3words, a UK-based company, is taking a unique approach to solving this problem. The idea behind its product is simple - utter three words and that will give you a precise location across any part of the globe. “Street addressing only covers a certain portion of the planet and the fact is that around 75% of the countries in the world don’t have a well-maintained street addressing system,” says Giles Rhys Jones, CMO of what3words. “The last-mile delivery is really inefficient because of bad addressing. So our solution is a simple way to address that.”

Though what3words wasn’t the first one to realize this problem, it is among the first companies to try and solve this problem. “A lot of people have recognized the challenges and have tried solving it. But the thing is, they all solve it the same way,” notes Rhys Jones. “The GPS coordinates are 18 digits, which people reduced to an alphanumeric code of 10 digits. But it still is tough to remember, communicate and put on a Satmap system. If I write fast and hand it out to you, you might read a 7 as a 1 and end up on the wrong side of town.”

What makes what3words even more fascinating is its origin story, which incidentally is far removed from the navigation or geographic mapping community. Before venturing out with his startup, Chris Sheldrick, the co-founder of what3words, was organizing live music events. And while on the job, he noticed to his dismay that a lot of people got lost or turned up late to events because they were confused while finding the event location.

With the situation not showing any semblance of improving, Sheldrick realized that he needed to figure a way out of this mess. While he was brainstorming for ideas along with a mathematician friend of his, they hit upon the idea of using words as addresses, instead of the traditional practice of using numbers, street names, and alphanumeric codes on GPS devices. The duo divided the world up into 3x3 meter squares, giving them 57 trillion such squares. But with permutations and combinations withholding, 40,000 words were deemed enough to get every single square its unique three-word address.

“The point is, people’s ability to remember three words is near perfect. Their ability to communicate three words is incredibly high. The solution that came out of the blue had a different perspective, and it worked out well for us,” adds Rhys Jones.

The three words that define a square is randomly pre-generated and fixed by the company’s algorithm. The only parameter that is strictly adhered to is making sure similar sounding words in two addresses are kept as far apart as possible. For instance, table.chair.lamp is in the U.S. and table.chair.damp is in Australia. This way, even if there’s a slight error in writing down an address, the autocorrect feature points out the mistake, reducing a lot of hassle associated with bad addressing.

what3words is also taking a global approach to its addresses and thus offering its product in various languages. “We currently have 14 languages in place, including English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. We have addressed the entire planet in all of those languages and are coming up with 14 more languages this year, which includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, and Tamil. The idea is to make sure you would be able to use the three-word addresses in your own language, wherever you are in the world,” says Rhys Jones.

The market potential for what3words is huge. The geographic information system business is worth trillions around the world, since everything from ordering an Uber to getting an on-demand pizza delivered to your doorstep requires GPS. “In the UK, a lot of deliveries fail because of bad addressing, even though it is one of the best-addressed countries in the world,” explains Rhys Jones. “Poor addressing and re-deliveries due to that account for a loss of 130 million pounds a year in the UK.”

what3words currently serves 600 customers, with users from around 180 different countries around the world. Their customers are varied, including Aramex, which is one of the largest delivery companies in the Middle East, Mercedes, music festivals, travel guides, to event companies. Ten different national postal services have also adopted what3words into their processes. Rhys Jones mentions that the system now allows people to send letters from Mongolia to Nigeria with just three words on the address.

Mercedes, having understood the potential of this solution has invested in the company, which is being used to penetrate deeper into the Middle East and African markets. Rhys Jones concludes by saying what3words is focussed on marketing campaigns to get the word out there and also in breaking the general perception that the existing addressing system is perfect - which as experience shows, has a lot to improve.

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