If you live in a city in the developed world, you’ve probably not noticed this but addressing in most parts of the world is just sh*tty! Giving addresses to places is an evolved phenomenon.
Like every evolved phenomenon, addressing has evolved at different paces in different parts of the world and has different standards and different levels of acceptance. Pretty much like how the metric system and the imperial system evolved differently or which side of the road we choose to drive on in different countries. The primary cause of the failure of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter was a goof-up by a software that produced results in non-SI units.
So, should a problem continue to be a problem? The folks at this young startup say NO. We spoke to one of the creators of what3words, which is a universal addressing system based on a 3mx3m global grid. The 57 trillion such squares are each allocated with a fixed and unique 3-word address. Their algorithm makes it possible to fit it in a compact 10MB software that can be installed on any smartphone and is compatible across platforms and devices. Currently available in 8 languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, German, Turkish and Swedish and are working on Italian Greek, Arabic, Swahili and a few more.
In the developed world, not having a perfect address means logistical errors, wrongly delivered packages, delays and additional costs. In the developing world, it means something even bigger. About 4 million people in the world live without a proper address. This may sound like it isn’t a big deal, but no address means no access to the most basic things in life like an identity document and as a result social security, food, aid, medical care and almost every other basic human right.
We speak to Jack Waley-Cohen, co-founder of what3words over a little more than 3 words ☺
Why words? What led to this and why “3 Words” in particular?
The reason we discovered this problem was when one of my co-founders was trying to organize music events, which is what he used to do. He realized many people were finding it difficult to find a correct location, particularly when the event was overseas. When he tried to give them addresses using the local address terminology that too didn’t work. He then tried giving them coordinates which they could type into a device. People would find that scary and would often make mistakes typing in long strings of numbers. The driving force was to try and find a much friendlier human layer for the precision of latitudes and longitudes. This is when the idea behind words came up. Humans communicate and pass information using words! Besides you have only 10 digits to choose from and you need far more numbers to create combinations but with words you can have tens of thousands of words to choose from and create combinations with. Then when we studied the area that need to be covered and the size of precision required, we decided to go with 3mx3m and to do that, we needed 57 trillion squares which could be done with about 40,000 words which is a reasonable number of words to find in any language.
Jack goes on to make a reference to this particular XKCD comic:
Easy to remember and yet a large number of combinations!
When you choose 3 words, is there a pattern (for example- dog.bite.elephant would be easier to remember than say, bite.dog.elephant)?
The three words used are pretty random. There is a little bit of science behind it in the algorithm to decide what words get used in different parts of the world but the whole system is agnostic as to the meaning of the words. We have a fairly complicated internal mechanism for saying how good a word is and “good” is a combination of the length of the word, how common it is, how distinctive it is and how easy it is to remember and spell, as well as a few secret ingredients, but the meaning of the word is never relevant.
Was it ever on the cards?
A little bit, but it very quickly emerged that it was way too hard. We tried to think of whether combinations of nouns, verbs and adjectives in some structure would work but as soon as you have limitations, you need more words and then it becomes impractical.
What was your first big success?
Honestly, the first success was making it work and getting it launched. It was getting it out there and people saying it works and being excited by it. It was more in terms of the validation of a concept and people understanding the usefulness of it. Quite early on, we had people from within the geospatial industry saying things like “this is something we wouldn’t have thought of even within the industry because it is so different but so powerful”. That is quite special and is a big validation for our work. A big success was when one of our team joined us – he used to be the managing director of the International operation of Ordnance Survey which is the UK national mapping agency. He left Ordnance Survey and joined, bringing in his expertise and contacts. That was quite significant for us as well as a significant message to our clients.
There must have been quite a few obstacles in making it work.
Trying to get good enough words, avoiding rude words, difficult words, avoiding spelling mistakes or variant spellings of the same words, or words that sound the same as each other. One of our goals was to clean up our word list to make sure each word was as unique as possible. That’s quite a complicated process and takes a long time. Other issues relate to just the way the world works – the world isn’t completely uniform and putting a grid of 3mx3m across the world is quite a mathematical challenge. There were some technical challenges of this nature but we’ve figured them out!
How do you make this mainstream? You’re currently getting the word around by partnering with other products and companies. Is there a way to get the end user use what3words as their primary address?
Our current strategy is going via partners and we integrate what3words via their app and they have a user base that they communicate this to. In terms of reaching end users, that will be part of our core strategy.
Are you in touch with governments to get them to use what3words as a formal addressing system?
We have got some conversations going but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it. But that is one of our business development goals – maybe starting with smaller countries or starting on a regional level.
When governments do a census, someone visits every doorstep every 10 years. It could be a good idea to use these censuses to address entire countries. All you need to do is hand them a device!
We’re talking to the census guys in the UK but addressing isn’t as big a problem in the UK. However census is a big opportunity for us and is a line of inquiry. There’s an opportunity for them to record and communicate the 3 word address of each house.
Biggest challenge and opportunity?
Biggest challenge is adoption. We need lots of people to use what3words, not because it’s fun but because it gives a real benefit in making a business more profitable or improving the quality of people’s lives. The challenge is to improve the adoption.
Fact is that addressing is a very real problem in most parts of the world. The opportunity for us is to make the most of this because we’ve got right approach at the right time.
[Tweet “@what3words – Keep spreading the goodness! #OKIntrnt”]
As part of our efforts to connect people, we asked Jack if he would like to speak to some of our readers directly and he happily agreed! Write to us and we will contact you within a week and tell you how you can reach him!
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