“4 billion” – that’s the number of people who, according to Giles Rhys Jones are missing out because the global system of addresses doesn’t work. Jones works at what3words, April’s app of the month, and we caught up with him before the Easter break to understand how this is possible and what he plans to do about it.
Location, it turns out, is not a “solved problem”. Addresses can be far too long to be practical, too temporary, or as he points out, can simply not exist for huge numbers of people in developing countries. “Have you ever tried to meet someone on a beech?” he asks, “miles of sand but only one address.” We take his point.
What3words tackles the problem by breaking the surface of the world up into trillions of 3mX3m squares and assigning 3 words to each of them – so for instance, the main entrance to the Sony Mobile office in Hammersmith is ‘cooks.loaf.trial,’ (and no, we don’t work in a bakery).
Rhys took the time to answer some of our questions below so have a read, grab the app from the Google Play Store and think carefully when you next get the text saying “where are you?”
Who are you and what’s your involvement with 3words?
I’m Giles Rhys Jones, marketing director for what3words. I left the advertising world after 18 years in the industry; the last 10 as global digital strategy director at Ogilvy to join this 8 person start up following a bit of funding and an amazing idea.
What3words is a global addressing system based on a grid of 57 trillion 3mx3m squares, with each square allocated a unique, fixed 3-word address.
There is no global system for addressing except the long strings of latitude and longitude coordinates. These are impossible to remember and difficult to use. Our platform converts these complicated coordinates to 3 simple words and back again.
3 word addresses are just easier and quicker to remember than regular address, they’re also simpler to communicate than any other system. You can write, read, say or share them, especially when considering platforms where you’re subject to a character is limited, like Twitter. The system also now works with voice & with no data connection.
What is the problem you solve? What’s wrong with addresses?
The world is very poorly addressed. Ever tried to meet someone on a beach, in a festival, find a hidden gem of a restaurant or must see bar? How about if you’re late for a big interview? You can be guaranteed that the pin that drops on the map will be in the entire of the building rather than at the correct entrance.
Poor addressing is costly & annoying in most developed countries around the world, it hampers the growth and development of nations, ultimately costing lives.
Get outside any developed nation and around 75% of the world (135 countries) suffers from inadequate addressing systems. This means that around 4 billion people are invisible; unable to get deliveries or receive aid; report disease and unable to exercise many of their rights as citizens because they simply have no way to communicate where they live. It means that in remote locations water facilities can’t be found, monitored and fixed; and schools, refugee camps and informal settlements remain unaddressed.
What were the main challenges behind designing the app and how did you overcome them?
Our concept is pretty far out, so getting people to “understand by using” was the key. When people zoom into the grid level, move the pin around and see the 3 word addresses scrolling through the scale of the project and the possibilities become apparent. They can see they can have an address for their front door, back door, garden table, front gate, car parking spot or favourite spot in the park or the place to meet friends before a game at the weekend.
What were some of the considerations you had when designing 3Word’s UI?
At first we tried to put too much in; too many options & unnecessary functionalities. We thought it a bit much so stripped it back and focused on our core offer – finding 3 word addresses then allowing them to be easily used in other apps you might have on your phone like Waze, Citymapper, Navmii or any social network where you’d want to tell people where you are or where you are going to be.
How do you decide what coordinate has what random 3 words assigned to it?
The word-lists (25,000 per language) go through multiple automated and human processes including removing offensive words and homophones (sale & sail). They’re then sorted by an algorithm that takes into account 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 3 word addresses in unpopulated areas. It also shuffles similar-sounding 3-word combinations around the world to make it really obvious if you have made an error in typing or when saying them (e.g. table.chair.lamp & table.chair.lamps are on different continents).
What are some of the real life use-cases for 3words?
Last year a group of friends used it at Glastonbury Festival to address their tents. Street vendors and stallholders in Portobello Market, London are sharing their location through social media and actually sticking the words up. Hotels, restaurants & business are including 3 word addresses in their contact pages and I recently used it whilst skiing to get people to a particular meeting point. We have seen that postmen & women in the favelas in Rio, Brazil are using it to get people addresses so they can get mail. A company in South Africa is using it to control anti-poaching drone reconnaissance missions.
What’s next? What are the next challenges for the people looking to turn smartphones into something even more baked-in to our day to day lives?
I believe the next wave will be apps that talk better to each other. A common location language is just one example of how that might work. Every piece of data will be tied to a location – what that will look like will be pretty interesting. Having maps on all our devices has been a global transformation in how we think about location. Yet there is still no globally accepted and easy to use way to describe location.