Around the world in three words

me convention: the company what3words has sub-divided the world into 3x3-metre tiles. Each location is unique – with no addresses whatsoever used.

Today, four billion people do not have an associated address, according to estimates by the United Nations. Clare Jones set off on a path to change that. At the me Convention in Frankfurt, she spoke about the company where she has been working as Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) since 2015: what3words has sub-divided the entire surface of the earth into three-by-three-metre quadrants and assigned each of them a unique identifier comprised of three words. "We assigned 57 trillion tiles on the world map a unique, randomly generated name," Clare Jones explains. "Our official company address in London, for example, is no longer just 242 Acklam Road, London, W10 5JJ, but simply ///index.home.raft."

what3words has assigned 57 trillion tiles on the world map a unique, randomly generated name.

Clare Jones, CCO of what3words

The new coordinate system composed of three-word tiles is based on the GPS system, while the method used to generate word combinations seems to be completely random. However, there is a complex algorithm behind it all; to avoid potential confusions, similar sounding word combinations are kept as geographically far apart as possible. For example, the coordinate ///table.chair.lamps is located on the East Coast of the USA, while ///table.chair.lamp is in Australia. This way, both human and machine quickly notice if something has gone wrong when entering a new destination. A filter was used to exclude swear words and many words with negative associations from the vocabulary. Each three-word location exists only once in the world. You can look up the coordinates for your home address using the website or the app. Then all you have to do is jot it down somewhere – or better yet memorise it.

"Around 40,000 English words are enough to cover all of the tiles. By now, the what3words system also exists in many other languages, such as German, Finnish or Mongolian," Clare Jones explains. To prove that the word combinations are generated completely at random, she cites one example from Germany: the identifier ///zufall.karte.erde (literally: ///random.map.earth) is linked to a location close to Baiersbronn, in the middle of the Black Forest, yet the 3x3-metre tile with the perhaps more fitting name ///baum.baum.baum (literally: ///tree.tree.tree) is located in the west of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. (Note: Translating a three-word combination from English to German does not yield the same location. The German name for the locations described above would be ///demand.unerring.elector and ///broom.eagles.indecisive, respectively.)

The old address systems weren't developed for machines

While people formerly used maps to navigate, in the 21st century, it is often satellite-based navigation systems or smartphones with digital maps which guide us from A to B. "The maps that people use to orient themselves today have drastically changed over the last couple of years. Address systems, however, have hardly changed," Clare Jones explains, implying how what3words got started. Though every location on the planet has already been assigned GPS coordinates, the number chains are much too complicated for everyday use. From her point of view, what is missing is a simple system of coordinates that turns the complex GPS data into easily understandable words.

Another argument for a simple, language-based system is this: "The old address systems with road names, building numbers and postcodes were initially created for humans – not for machines," Clare Jones points out. When entering destinations – whether via keyboard or voice recognition – there are often problems, especially when travelling abroad.

Multiple roads bearing the same street name can also cause trouble. During a trip to Germany, British-born Jones experienced it herself: in Stuttgart, there are two roads called Plieninger Straße, and they are just a few kilometres apart. "I asked the taxi driver to take me to my hotel. He entered the address into his navigation system and proceded to take me to the wrong Plieninger Straße," Clare Jones recalls about her experience in Stuttgart. "However, that’s fairly harmless compared to another example: In Iceland, a tourist intended to navigate to Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik. Instead, his navigation system took him to Laugavegur in the Icelandic highlands."

Long GPS coordinates and difficult road and place names can now be replaced thanks to what3words – with just three simple words for every location on the earth. In the future, it won't matter if humans use their navigation system to guide them or if the car drives them to their destination autonomously: destination entry using just three words will soon be a much smoother alternative.

Arriving much more quickly – even without the name of the street

Urbanisation is progressing at an incredible pace. Wherever large numbers of people live in close proximity to one another, the what3words system will provide an improved means of orientation: parcel services and delivery drivers can benefit from the precise system of coordinates, while searching for entrances to courtyards or letter boxes positioned far away from building entrances ought to also become more simple. Even on large company premises or in huge accommodation complexes, the three words will help people reach their destination more quickly. Friends looking to meet up at a festival will also benefit from a clearly defined meeting point, three square metres in size.

We also thought about drones; their flight path could be guided by these new co-ordinates.

Clare Jones

A further use of what3words might be for tourist destinations in hard-to-reach places. One could imagine, for instance, the words-based coordinates being cited in travel guide books in order to share the precise location of so-called insider's tips. Owners of food trucks or mobile sales stands will also be able to increase the likelihood of being found by customers; they can communicate their regularly changing daily location via various online channels. "Of course, we have also thought about drones; their flight path could be guided by these new co-ordinates," Clare Jones hints peering into the sky with a smile.

Medical assistance and disaster relief

But the what3words system wasn’t just developed for well-connected, well-situated, city-dwelling online shoppers. "Particularly with areas on the fringe of large cities, there are often no road names at all. Here, people often didn't have their own postal address," Clare Jones says, pointing out the huge social potential of the project. Having no address can mean a great deal of problems for those affected. They are often denied basic social and civil services. Persons who can't provide an address are almost invisible to the state.

Particularly in fringe areas, there are often no road names at all. Here, people didn't have their own postal address.

Clare Jones

In seven countries, the national postal service has already officially adopted the what3words system. Notable pioneers include Mongolia and Nigeria. Not only can people receive letters and parcels more quickly thanks to the easy-to-understand system of coordinates emergency medical assistance or obstetric help can also be greatly facilitated, particularly in densely populated or distant locations. The same is true for locations which have been affected by a natural disaster. Here, the three-word coordinates can expedite the deployment of first aid and aid agencies. The free tools offered by what3words also work on mobile phone networks: the vocabulary and the algorithm take up just 12 MB of space on a smartphone.

 

With all 2018 models, Mercedes-Benz will offer this innovative address system -- and will be the first vehicle manufacturer in the world to do so. Entering a navigation destination by means of voice control will therefore be much easier than ever before. Anyone searching for ///meister.fahrende.fackel, for example, will be taken to the first filling station in the world – the local pharmacy in Wiesloch, where a memorial plaque reminds of the pioneering journey made by Bertha Benz. "With the uncomplicated method of entering addresses offered by what3words, we will be adding the next logical element to our navigation systems," explains Sajjad Khan, Vice President of Digital Vehicle & Mobility at Daimler AG.

What3words, founded as a startup in 2013, caught the attention of Daimler and its CEO Dieter Zetsche. In February 2017, the company was selected to take part in the second program cycle of the innovation platform STARTUP AUTOBAHN.

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