Remapping the Globe

Author: Jana Bronsch-Chassard

Oct 10, 2019 Innovation

/// is not just one of around 57 trillion addresses, but also the goal of British firm what3words: user-friendly navigation for everybody.

Just three words are enough to specify exactly where you are currently located, wherever you are on the globe. Be it in the middle of a desert, or in a metropolis with a population of millions, “what3words” has set itself the goal of becoming a global standard for positioning and providing address information. To this end, the UK-based start-up divided the entire Earth’s surface into three-by-three-meter squares – a total of 57 trillion of them. All are provided with a specifically allocated and unique combination of three words.
Allocation of the three words was performed by an algorithm developed by the company’s founders. That was in 2013. Today, this simple location service is used by thousands of companies around the world and across a number of sectors, including e-commerce, logistics, tourism and travel services, the automotive industry, disaster relief and rescue services, as well as pizza delivery! Among those that have adopted the platform are global players such as Mercedes Benz, TomTom, Airbnb and DB Schenker. The advantages for users are obvious: DB Schenker, for example, optimizes its supply chain by using the three-word addresses to specify exact delivery and pick-up points in large spaces, such as trade fairs or company premises. Airbnb uses the tech to make it easier for tourists to find the entrance of their booked accommodation in a foreign city.
Yet, the idea for precise location services is far from new. Just consider the satellite-supported Global Positioning System (GPS). The longitudes and latitudes provide a 16-digit number that can be provided in three different formats, making sure to get all periods and commas correct. Far too cumbersome for daily use. The what3words algorithm transforms GPS data into a user-friendly three-word combination. The founders of the mapping system selected 40,000 words, which mathematically allow for approximately 60 trillion combinations. For example, the entrance to the company’s London headquarters can be found at ///filled.count.soap. The three-by-three square directly adjacent to this is ///deed.tulip.judge. There is hardly any danger of confusion when providing a meeting point, delivery address or one’s location in an emergency situation. Emergency services in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia both use the three-word addresses to locate people in need.
Today, what3words is available in 35 languages, and as a free app for Android and iOS. Once downloaded, the application can be used without an Internet connection. The business model is based around fees for the commercial usage of the service. The platform is developing too. One of the newest business units is dedicated to developing speech-recognition based navigation – to anywhere on the planet, with just three words.