This Company is Rethinking the Entire Global Addressing System

What three words pinpoint your current location?


A rather intelligent gentleman by the name of Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

In addition to logic – especially if you’re planning to travel – getting from A to B also requires the following three things:

A map, a navigation system (e.g. a street sign), an address.

According to Jessica Greenwood, a strategist at R/GA in New York, a map is primal human need; and an inherently collaborative discipline.

Over time, different corners of the earth have added their own contribution to the evolution of a map. The Chinese added colour to it, the Spanish: art and design, the Portuguese produced the first scientific world map, the Belgians created the first full Atlas and the Germans, somewhat unsurprisingly, added a new level of accuracy by creating the first map from 12750km distance of observation – the distance still used by Google maps satellite today. Then, America contributed in 2004 with the introduction of Google Maps.

A decade later, Google Maps was named the most frequently used mobile app in the world by Global Web Index. (Facebook has held the number one spot in the two years since). So over the course of time, mapping has evolved dramatically, as has navigation but addressing has essentially stayed the same.

Those of us fortunate enough to have an address have apartment or house numbers, street names, suburbs, cities, states and postcodes to identify with. But as Rhys Jones, Marketing Director of what3words, informs the audience at SXSW, “75% of the countries in the world (135) have an inadequate, poor or non-existent addressing system.” This means that globally, four billion people are, quite literally, ‘not on the map’.

But why is being excluded from an addressing system such an immense problem? Because, Rhys stresses, it makes you invisible to the state and as a result, you’re likely to be skipped over for aid, a fair observation of your rights, the vote, a bank account and many other fundamental things we address-bearers take for granted. As he points out: “You can’t get a job without an address and you can’t get an address without a job.”

Even in places where addresses do exist, they still prove problematic. In the UK, one of the most specifically addressed countries in the world, 0.5% of all deliveries fail. This may not sound huge but it amounts to a cost of £831 million a year. Rhys also reports that Brits spend 22 million hours per year lost while overseas and cite navigation (or lack thereof) as one of the top causes of marital arguments.

On the other side of the Atlantic, 11% of US homes don’t have accurate address data. UPS have declared that if they could save their drivers 1 mile per day they would save US$50 million a year. “The geospatial economy is worth US$75 billion and impacts US$1.6 trillion in US alone,” adds Rhys.

Yet, there has never been one consistent system that everyone, everywhere on the planet agrees on using. Until now. The team at what3words have invented an entirely new way of mapping – and thinking about – the world. Their highly refined algorithm has assigned three words from the dictionary to describe every 3 x 3 m on the earth.

How does it work? For every 3m x 3m square on Earth (that’s 57 trillion, by the way), w3w has allocated three distinct words to ‘name’ that area. For example, the words “arise, festivity, unpolluted” pinpoints this coastal spot in aside the Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town. “Pushy, limes, themes” is in this park in Brooklyn, New York. This very remote part of Russia? That’s “active, dames, local.” And “toffee, branched, pyramid” is somewhere in Hertfordshire, England between Bedford and Cambridge.

I’m currently writing from “tedious, nuns, pillow,” in Caffe Medici, Downtown Austin, Texas. The GPS coordinates are 30.2648453 (latitude) -97.744198498 (longitude), but the chance of remembering that is minuscule. Humans’ ability to remember a series of three words is pretty good, but 20 numbers – not so much. What3words’ addressing system is available in 9 languages so far and also functions offline to allow access for the 4.2 billion people around the world who do not have internet access and 5.6 billion do not have a smart phone. All homophones (e.g. ‘here’ and ‘hear’) have been removed from the w3w lexicon so words can’t be confused. And it is a deliberately non-hierarchal system so if you slightly mishear a word, it will be very obvious it’s wrong.

The platform has already been adopted by individuals, businesses and NGOs for their various needs. Glastonbury Festival used what3words last June for equipment drop off, first aid and helping festival-goers find their own tent. Rhys reports, 80% of calls at festivals are standard “where are you?” plea to find your friends. The city of Denver has given every fire hydrant its own address. And the UN built the system into their disaster-reporting app. Most recently What3Words has partnered with Mongolia’s postal service. Although it has profound political and humanitarian implications like this, what3words also has a revolutionary effect on most areas of day-to-day life – food delivery, tourism, e-commerce, property, sport, events and transport. Along with putting four billion people back on the grid, the aim is to keep people safe, create new efficiencies and improve customer experiences.

It’s proving to be a revolution that investors also want in on, as just last week the start-up successfully raised an additional $8.5 million (USD) in Series B funding (on top of their initial $5 million USD), led by logistics giant, Aramex, plus a number of existing investors. This new cash injection will allow the platform to expand in to a more Asian languages including Arabic.

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