Chris Sheldrick, founder and chief executive of what3words, used to organise live music events, but became increasingly frustrated when both bands and equipment failed to turn up due to poor address information.
Providing them with GPS coordinates proved little better as people rarely remember long strings of digits and have a tendency to write them down incorrectly. But on speaking to a mathematician friend, Sheldrick realised that words might be a better bet – if a list of 40,000 words was used three times in different combinations, there were enough options to divide the entire world into trillions of squares.
Based on this idea, the next step was to create a system, a mobile phone app and an algorithm - and what3words was born. The app, which is only 12Mb in size, works by using the phone’s GPS service to locate where someone is based, before converting the coordinates into three easy-to-remember words.
Because GPS coverage is more or less universal, the app can operate offline and works even if there is no data connection. This means it is ideal for use in disaster relief activity in areas where infrastructure has often been wiped out.
Workers simply use the app, or the company’s website, to zoom in on the map provided in order to find the location’s three word address, which can then be shared with others in their language of choice. Giles Rhys Jones, the company’s chief marketing officer, explains:
In rural locations that have been hit by disaster, there are often no street names, reference points or landmarks. So people can use the three-word address to find and share locations based on either where they’re standing or where they want to direct people to.
The vendor charges a software licence to commercial customers, which include postal services in the Ivory Coast, Mongolia and Tonga, if they embed its code into their own applications. But in the case of charities and humanitarian organisations, payment is either scaled or does not apply. For instance, if only the app is used, no fee is charged, but should they wish to embed code, doing so will cost no more than a “few hundred dollars”.
The technology has so far been used in a range of situations such as helping to restore telecoms in Ecuador following the 2016 earthquake, which resulted in more than 26,000 people being relocated into shelters. It also enabled the Philippine Red Cross to coordinate aid distribution following Typhoon Haima later that same year.
But the system has also been employed by non-governmental organisations in non-disaster situations too. In Haiti, for example, IHS used the app to help specify where water pipes needed to be laid.
In Durban, South Africa, the Gateway Health Institute, which provides emergency support vehicles for people living in the townships, has trained unemployed children to find the three-word address of different homes. They write the relevant words on a sticker, give it to the woman of the house and tell her to read it out to staff over her mobile phone if the family ever needs an ambulance.
But beyond doing good, there are also business advantages to being a socially responsible business, Jones believes:
Purpose-driven businesses perform better than solely for-profit businesses because people buy into them and identify with people who have a shared, common cause. You get a lot of brand love in disaster relief – people join the organisation for a number of reasons, but fairly high up there is that we’re a business with purpose.
The company’s ultimate aim, however, is to become the global standard for communicating location information and its technology is already being built into autonomous vehicles such as IBM Watson’s Olli and drone systems such as Drone Scout. As Jones points out:
Four billion people in the world [out of a total population of 7.5 billion) are without an address and the UN says that 75% of countries in the world have no well-maintained address or nothing at all. So we’re keen to build on the work we’ve already done and to get our system used as much as possible.