Just over five years ago, I was working in the music events industry. It was my job to make sure that bands, equipment and guests all ended up in the right place, but that turned out to be far more difficult than I expected. With musicians getting lost all over the English countryside, I realised street addresses just weren’t reliable enough, and latitude and longitude coordinates were too long and easy to mistake. There had to be a better way.
I sat down with a couple of friends to tackle this problem, and what3words was born. We divided the entire world into 3mx3m squares, and gave each square a unique three-word address. recoil.itself.electrics for example, identifies the exact front entrance of the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We had created a location reference solution that was very, very precise but also simple, and easy to remember, use and share with others. I had solved my problem of directing musicians to festival fields, but soon realised that three-word addresses could have a far greater impact on the world.
Four billion people don’t have a reliable address for where they live. They struggle to stake a property claim, register births, open a bank account, access health services, run a business or be found in an emergency. It hampers the growth and progress of nations and puts lives at risk. And even in the best-addressed parts of the world, street addresses aren’t accurate enough for services such as on-demand delivery, and certainly not for a future of autonomous vehicles and delivery drones.
What3words offers people a really simple way to talk about location. It can currently be used in 26 languages, including Arabic, and is optimised for speech recognition. The technology is used by businesses, governments and NGOs to operate more efficiently, and by individuals to find and share places reliably using the free app for iOS or Android.
Our system is being used by humanitarian organisations and NGOs around the world to give people access to essential services. In rural India, for example, Pollinate Energy uses three-word addresses to deliver solar lanterns to communities without electricity. In Mongolia and Liberia, people can now access microfinance for the first time — thanks to having an address to mention on their application form. In South Africa, NGO Gateway Health provides vulnerable pregnant women with their three-word addresses and has trained the local ambulance drivers to find places quickly in an emergency using what3words. The technology has also been used by the United Nations, Infinitum Humanitarian Systems and the Philippine Red Cross for faster and more effective response in the aftermath of natural disasters.
As well as enabling access to basic services, we are working with innovative companies to build the cities, transport systems and mobility solutions of the future. Mercedes-Benz already offers what3words voice navigation in several of its vehicles, enabling drivers to input any precise destination simply by saying three words to their car. The technology has also been integrated into autonomous shuttles such as IBM’s #AccessibleOlli and modular vehicles created by Next Future Transportation in Dubai.
As we move towards increasingly fluid and flexible transport systems and the sharing economy grows in importance, being able to easily communicate precise location is essential. What3words has been built into ride-hailing apps such as Cabify, a key player in Spanish and Portuguese markets, and can be used to locate charging points for electric vehicles, as well as specific parking spots for car-sharing projects. By making these new mobility services efficient and easy to use, we can cut carbon emissions and enjoy cleaner, healthier cities.
Chris Sheldrick is the CEO and co-founder of what3words.