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Chris Sheldrick, CEO of what3words, explains how the system is working to simplify addressing across the globe

What is what3words?

what3words is a global addressing system based on a grid of 57 trillion 10ft x 10ft squares. Each square has been allocated a unique, fixed three-word address. It means that everyone, everywhere, now has a simple and usable address.

The use of words means non-technical people can find any location accurately and communicate it more quickly, more easily and with less ambiguity than with any other system. Words can easily be remembered, written, said, printed or shared digitally.

Latitude and longitude (lat long) are the basis for our system. Lat long is brilliant for computers and trained professionals, but three-word addresses are a more human friendly format for everyday use, so we have converted lat long into these three-word addresses. 

How does the system work?

An algorithm and wordlist underpin our system. It is not a database but an algorithm, and so it is less than 10Mb [in size]and can fit on any device or in any app.

The wordlists have 25,000 words per language, although there are 40,000 in English as we have done the sea as well as land. The wordlists go through multiple automated and human review processes, which remove offensive words and homophones (for example sale and sail). Each of our wordlists is curated to ensure that the words are meaningful and in daily use in local language.

The words are sorted by the algorithm, which takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency and ease of spelling and pronunciation. Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas, and the longest words are used in three-word addresses in unpopulated areas.

The algorithm also shuffles similar-sounding three-word combinations around the world to make it really obvious if you have made an error in typing or when saying them (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 a typo. 

How does what3words translate between languages?

Three-word addresses are available in multiple languages and alphabets, including English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, Swahili and Arabic. More languages are on the way. They are not straight translations due to the way our algorithm works and the fact that a single word in one language can have a number of translations in another. 

What types of problems does what3words solve?

Around 75% of the world suffers from inadequate addressing systems, and in the remaining 25%, a number of national addressing systems are plagued with problems, causing widespread inefficiency. Poor addressing hampers the growth and progress of developing nations.

The benefits of better addressing are broad. Better and simpler addressing can impact four key groups of businesses and their customers by: improving the customer experience for mapping, navigation and travel; driving efficiencies for delivery, logistics and postal organizations; enabling the growth of e-commerce, m-commerce and banking; and improving and saving lives through governments, NGOs and charitable organizations. 

Are you working with any delivery companies?

We are working with a number of delivery companies, the most developed of which is Carteiro Amigo (Friendly Postmen) [in Brazil]. We are working with the company, which uses our native app, to give people three-word addresses so they can get mail and packages delivered.

Addresses are written on stickers for residents who can use them when ordering online. The system understands the district the three-words are in and the delivery station that the package needs to go to. This allows Carteiro Amigo to scale its operations, it reduces time educating new postmen and women, and allows them to work more efficient routes.

For more information, watch the video here. 

Do you see the system being used in countries where they already have good addressing systems in place?

There is obviously huge potential for the system in developing countries where no system exists. But we can also be used to add a level of specificity to deliveries and mail in the developed world by augmenting existing addresses. This is particularly useful in rural areas where postcodes cover larger areas. The current poor state of geocoding means that even in developed nations small business are not found easily, and therefore lose potential customers as well as mail. 

What are your plans for the future?

We are excited to be working on voice input, which means that anyone can say a three-word location and it will be recognized. We feel this is of particular importance for in-car navigation, given the ambiguity of multiple streets with the same name and poor geocoding that drops pins in the center of buildings rather than at their entrances. We are developing this in house and hope to launch it at the end of this summer.

We have had impressive take-up from across the globe with the system being used by individuals in over 170 countries. Developing and rapidly growing nations, including those in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, are embracing the system so they are a focus for us.

Chris Sheldrick built his career in the music business producing band performances for private events. He began at IMG before moving on to found CS Music in 2003 and Live Music International in 2011, where his organization managed the logistics, production and artist booking for large-scale live music events around the world for over a decade.

Chris experienced a constant frustration with the logistical problems caused by addresses, which he sought to redefine by devising a new global system based on human communication principles.

In 2013 Chris founded what3words with three others to provide a human-friendly interface for the communication of precise location.

June 24, 2015 

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Helen has worked for UKi Media & Events for nearly a decade. She joined the company as assistant editor on Passenger Terminal World and since progressed to become editor of five publications, covering everything from aviation, logistics and e-commerce to meteorology. She has a love for travel and property and has redeveloped three houses in three years. When she’s not editing magazines, she’s running around after her two boys and their partner in crime, Pete the pug.

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