We are using postcodes and address systems designed decades ago. The UN estimates that about 4 billion people lack a reliable way to address their homes and, as such, are denied access to basic social and civic services. Globally, poor addressing is frustrating and costs businesses billions in logistic errors and adjustments.
Specifying and trying to communicate the location of a road, bridge, buildings or as a matter of fact, any location without a standard street address is challenging. This could easily be taken for granted given the widespread use of tools like the GPS and Google Maps. However, in non-technical everyday communication when you try writing them down, telling someone over the phone, radio or in person – you encounter this guaranteed difficulties.
This is the space a number of tech innovators have been working to harmonize – developing a global address referencing system designed for everyone to use. What3words, a Uk based tech company is doing exactly that with a system based on a global grid of 57 trillion 3mx3m squares where each square has been assigned a unique 3-word address. This means that people can receive deliveries accurately, rural navigation can be managed more effectively, among other applications.
- What3words is a tiny piece of code that plugs into existing apps and services. It works across a range of platforms and devices. It uses a grid of the world made up of 57 trillion squares of 3 metres by 3 metres. Each square has been given a three-word English address. The 17 trillion squares on land have been named with three words in various other languages. It is already integrated into a range of mapping and navigation services with several governments, couriers, retailers, travel companies, aid agencies and it comes available in various languages.
- The words list go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling (human review processes may include removing offensive words and homophones e.g. hear and here). Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas that speak that language, while the longer, more complicated words are used in unpopulated areas. The what3words algorithm shuffles similar-sounding three-word combinations around the world to enable smart error-checking. So if a three-word combination is entered slightly incorrectly and the result is still a valid w3w reference, the location will be so far away from the intended area that it will be immediately obvious to both the user and an intelligent error-checking system
- The core technology is contained with a file around 12MB in size. This means it can be used offline with no data connection and installed on the simplest of smartphones and navigational devices. This solves a serious constraint when in remote areas with poor connectivity. The system is also fixed and does not change so there is 100% certainty that all instances of the system running everywhere in the world will provide the same 3-word address for the same location. A uniform word-based system for everyone eliminates the confusion caused by multiple conflicting alphanumeric tags.
What3words is free for individuals to use on the site and apps. There are charges for access to the API or SDK, and they are in consideration to deploy a structure that provides qualifying organizations, include humanitarian and not-for-profit entities, with a range of free and discounted usage plans. Supporters of open standards have been critical of what3words system for being controlled by a private business and the software for being copyrighted. However, the company has gained a lot of credit and recognition for their pioneering initiative.
Precise and consistent location referencing would not only improve global addressing, it could also connect people and businesses to untapped customer bases and new industry sectors. As people realize the limitations of current addressing methods, they would see how these 3-word addresses can become the answer to a wealth of problems. The future holds a lot of promise in this space with room for improvements, growth and widespread adoption. Other established and budding geospatial tech players also have interesting new tools we noted. Some of them include:
Esri: The (Environmental Systems Research Institute) is an international supplier of geographic information system (GIS) software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications. The company is headquartered in Redlands, California. Has special cloud-based service platforms like the ArcGIS.
MapBox is a mapping platform for developers with building blocks that make it easy to integrate location into any mobile or online application. They are set at changing the way people move around cities and understand our planet.
BatchGeo is an online Mapping tool. Users can drag an Excel spreadsheet with geographic data (either street addresses or with latitude and longitude) and the service generates a simple Google Map for free. Free users can generate a map that is either publicly listed or unlisted, but paid users can password protect the application.
- What3words is a London-based startup, founded in 2013 by Chris Sheldrick, Jack Waley-Cohen and Michael Dent.
- Sheldrick and Ganesalingam originally conceived the idea after Sheldrick struggled to get equipment and bands to event locations on time due to inadequate addressing while working as a concert organize.
- The company is gathering pace with a number of partnerships announced from USAID and UN to award winning transit planner TripGo. This will enable them to roll out the what3words platform to a much wider audience.