Steven Ramage, Strategy Director, What3Words shares how his start-up has simplified the world’s addressing system by splitting the globe into titled squares. Read on to know more
‘Hi! I’d like to get this package delivered to purely.dips.dent, please.’
Now, that may have sounded unintelligent. But, what if we were to tell you that it was just a request made at a courier company, asking for a parcel to be delivered to Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, New York, US?
A new global addressing system, called what3words (w3w), has divided the world into 57 trillion 3mx3m squares, and given each one a three-word address. So, while Paris’ Champs-Élysées becomes ‘gushes.cracker.fronted,’ London’s Oxford Street boils down to ‘tube.gates.leave’ under this novel system.
And while you may find yourself searching for what your address is called under what3words’ umbrella for fun, let’s not forget that we still don’t have unique addresses for a major chunk of planet Earth. It’s these 4 billion unaddressed people around the world what3words really wants to focus on.
Q. The company’s motto is ‘addressing the world.’ Is the global addressing problem something we really need to worry about?
Around 75% of the world suffers from inadequate addressing systems. In the remaining 25%, a large number of national addressing systems are plagued with problems, causing widespread inefficiency. And while poor addressing is costly and annoying for some developed countries, in developing nations around the world, it is responsible for hampered growth and progress.
Q. How can a unique address change the world?
A unique address means that the 4 billion unaddressed people of this planet can now be visible. They are able to get deliveries and receive aid, report diseases and exercise their rights as citizens, because they have a simple way to communicate where they live or work. It means that in remote locations, water facilities can be found, monitored and fixed; and schools, hospitals, refugee camps and informal settlements can be managed. It means that microfinance can scale up, and local businesses and ecommerce can grow. On the other hand, in countries with advanced systems, a precise and simple address means that people don’t get lost, packages are delivered efficiently, utilities are managed and businesses get found by customers. This can add billions to economies.
Q. How successful have you been in trying to allocate three words to any and every location in the world?
Since what3words is based on a grid of 57 trillion 3mx3m squares, we have been able to give everyone a unique, fixed, three-word long, simple and usable address. Anyone, including countries that have poor or inadequate addressing, can get started immediately, quickly and cost effectively.
Q. But, why are you working against the coordinate system?
Latitude and longitude continue to be the basis for our system. And while they are brilliant for computers and trained professionals, three-word addresses are more human-friendly in everyday use. There are a few alphanumeric addressing systems out there, but they are all hard to memorise. The use of words means that non-technical people can find any location accurately, and communicate it more quickly, more easily and with less ambiguity than any other system. Words can easily be remembered, written, said, printed or shared digitally. And let’s not forget that three-word addresses are available in multiple languages, including English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, Swahili and Arabic. More languages are on the way.
Q. ‘Table.chair.lamps,’ ‘curiosity.peach.deconstructs’ — aren’t these sets of words quite bizarre in a world which relies on latitude and longitude?
Each of our wordlists is curated to ensure that the words are meaningful and used daily in local language. There are occasionally some odd combinations, but, we believe the benefits of a precise and simple address outweighs these.
Q. Can you tell us about the technology and related infrastructure behind w3w?
An algorithm and wordlist underpin our service. The system is not a database, but an algorithm of less than 10Mb in size, so it fits on any device. The wordlists have 25,000 words in each language, and 40,000 in English. We have covered the sea, as well as the land. The lists go through multiple automated and human review processes to remove homophones (like sale and sail) and offensive words. The words are then sorted by the algorithm, taking into account the word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation.
Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas that speak that language, and the longest words are used in unpopulated areas. The algorithm also shuffles similar- sounding three-word combinations around the world to make it obvious if you have made an error in typing. For example, ‘table.chair.lamp’ and ‘table.chair.lamps’ are purposely on different continents.
We have error detection that makes intelligent suggestions on where it thinks you mean as you type even if you make typos. We are currently working on voice recognition.
Q. How do navigation devices comprehend w3w? Can I type in an address and navigate to it easily in an app, like Google Maps or Apple Maps?
Currently, we have in excess of 25 partner integrations from organisations offering taxi services to UAVs. Out of these, the most notable is Navmii, one of the world’s leading navigation apps which now allows its 23 million users to specify a three-word address. Our goal is to become a globally accepted standard, so you can just use your Apple device or search word.word.word on Google, but we are not there yet.
Q. How is w3w working with various organisations across the world to tackle the addressing problem?
We recently attended a number of key events, including the United Nations Universal Postal Union (UPU) Strategy Conference in Geneva, and the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference in Washington. Our goal has been to explain to these global organisations how much of an impact a simple and precise three-word address can have on the global population. Numerous governments from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia have now contacted us about addressing entire countries. And some developed countries are already using three-word addresses, such as, Statens Kartverk in Norway. We also have several tie-ups at the community level, including a delivery franchise operating in the Brazilian favelas, called Carteiro Amigo; a mapping and spatial collection app called Geospago; and a car sharing app called Gocar share.