What3Words co-founder Chris Sheldrick explains how his company is creating Mongolian addresses and helping the UN in disaster zones

Harriet Green
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Spots labelled with their What3Words addresses in Mongolia

Back in November 2014, advertising executive Rory Sutherland called What3Words “the best navigation idea [he’d] seen since the tube map”.

The idea is simple: take the globe, divide it into 57 trillion 3m by 3m squares and ascribe three common words to each square. To cover the globe, What3Words needs to use 40,000 words – which gives around 60 trillion combinations. I’m currently sitting at pinch.fish.smug; a colleague down the way is at garden.bumpy.punks. “We only put the really uncommon words in the sea,” explains co-founder Chris Sheldrick.

He thought up What3Words as a solution to a problem he had in his previous incarnation as the owner of Live Music International, a booking and producing company for live music events across the world.

“People would be dropping equipment off in a small English village or halfway up an Italian mountain and we’d have such trouble over them finding the exact location. They’d ring in having stopped between a lamp post and a hedge. We tried GPS coordinates, but people were very resistant to using them.”

Sheldrick realised he needed something person-friendly and, teaming up with school friend (they were both in the chess team) Jack Waley-Cohen, started to build What3Words. “Three words works because it’s memorable, and we took out homophones and words that are different with US spellings.” People don’t use coordinates in speech, and one mistyped word can send someone off course.

Chris Sheldrick, co-founder of What3Words

Presumably, I ask, this can be even worse if a letter is wrong – you could end up the other side of the world, rather than two hours away. “Except it’s so likely the error would be caught before that. We intentionally put table.chair.spoon(s) as far away from each other as possible. The app knows you’re in London; it’s going to ask if you really mean the other side of the world and it’s built to suggest you might have meant spoons minus the final ‘s’, for example.”

Now, What3Words is in 12 languages and has just raised £10m. Free to individuals, interest in its enterprise solution just keeps growing. From next month, Mongolians will be able to address post with three words – the firm signed a deal with national delivery service Mongolian Post this summer. “It’s the least densely populated country in the world – getting on for the size of Western Europe, but with under 3m people. There are some addresses in the capital city, but it’s not comprehensive and in a lot of the country they just don’t exist. The postal service wants to optimise how it delivers in the capital, and be able to reach everyone else as simply as possible.”

This isn’t a problem peculiar to Mongolia. In the US, it’s only in the last 10 years that all houses had street addresses. Much of the world still relies on PO Boxes and word of mouth. Last year, the Brazilian co-operative Carteiro Amigo started using the What3Words app to give people in favelas addresses. Watch Sheldrick give a Tedx Talk, and he’ll quickly quote the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto: “Without an address, you live outside the law”.

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Sheldrick now works across the world, but it is Mongolia that’s left him rather taken. “It’s an absolutely amazing place – you just can’t compare it with anywhere else. The people are so entrepreneurial, so resourceful. It’s usual to find someone who runs an e-commerce business but is also a used car dealer and has an off-road sports business. That people should be building businesses is entirely encouraged. A week in the capital feels like two months anywhere else.”

Breaking new ground

A keen photographer, Sheldrick returned from Mongolia with a business deal, and a bunch of very accurately labelled photos. A growing application of What3Words, “it means people can look at a picture on social media or a travel blog and find out exactly where it is – and go and take it themselves.”

While What3Words can save time, energy and frustration – Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One crew, who are currently filming in Birmingham, are using it to find each other round the set – it can also save lives: it’s now being used by the UN in an app designed for international disasters.

Another deal has just been signed with the company’s first drone partner, Altavian. You might not be doing it yet, but if you’ve forgotten the limes for the G&Ts and all your guests are out on the patio, you’ll need the fruit delivered at the bottom of the garden rather than on top of everyone. “They’ve adapted their software so that you can input a What3Words address as the destination. You’d use our app to find your ideal drop-off location, then input that. Ideally, we’ll get to a stage where you go to pay on an e-commerce site and just input your three word address which goes straight through to the drone operator.”

Something that distinguishes What3Words from apps like Find Friends is the fact that it isn’t documenting current location. Rather, it can capture somewhere you’re either going to or would like something to happen at. “A lot of apps can give you current location really well. But so much of the time, you want to talk about somewhere you’re currently not.”

A deal with Indian moped taxi firm Bikxie points to something else Sheldrick would like to see in the future: “where we’re ultimately going is where you can say to your wristwatch ‘how much is a taxi to toffee.branch.pyramid?’, it’ll give you a price and then you click to book. You can’t type an address into a wristwatch, and you might not even want to be picked up from exactly where you are now.”

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This speech shift has also prompted the company to start developing the technology for voice recognition in cars – get in and say to your automated vehicle that you want to go to bang.fluff.door.

Inviting everyone

Sheldrick is proud of the ecosystem What3Word's software is creating. “We actively encourage people to take our code and integrate it. An app called Navmii has just done so. It’s the biggest offline navigation app. That’s fantastic because so many businesses in the developing world don’t have access to the internet.”

What3Words promotes new examples of its tech in action to its users. “Ecosystem is definitely the right word, because then everyone can use what everyone else is building – particularly helpful in a world where you need a system that works across multiple devices and for different ends.”

Sheldrick aims to become “a global standard that changes behaviour – and we’ll get the funds and infrastructure to make that happen. We’re looking at local languages in India and Nigeria... What3Words can become a way of life – you turn over a menu in Bhutan, tell someone its three word address and they know where you are.” That might not be too far away. A gallery in France, upon discovering it had the arty address tables.empty.workshop, decided to name itself just that. “I think we’re just discovering how powerful a sequence of three words can be.”

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