In many other parts of the world, it’s difficult to find places and getting lost is a common problem. The world is very badly addressed, and talking about specific locations is difficult. You have to do long-winded descriptions and you often don’t meet people. However, finding an address has become very easy with what3words. Three-word addresses are easy to say and share. Giles Rhys Jones, the CMO for what3words, explains how their app works, its various benefits, and how they’re solving the address problem anywhere in the world.
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What3words: Solving The Address Problem Anywhere In The World with Giles Rhys Jones
Our guest is one of my favorite sites that I tell people about all the time and the Founder of What3words, Giles Rhys Jones.
It’s good to speak to you again. We’ve met at various stages of the What3words journey, so it’s great.
Back when you announced in 2013 that this thing was coming out, I immediately went to the site. I used it, I played with it. I must have been there for 45 minutes, looking at it and saying, “This is finally the way to solve the address problem anywhere in the world.” In just three words, I can describe any small area. What’s the area?
Ten foot by ten-foot squares.
I saw it in meters. That’s why I couldn’t remember. That’s three meters. Other times I’ve been on and seeing how the words change at various places in my house. I’ve been dying to meet you. We met up at CES. You’ve got some announcements. Things are going better. Why should somebody be going to What3words?
What3words is a very simple way to talk about the location because the world is very badly addressed. Talking about specific locations is difficult. If you live in rural parts of the US or the UK, your street address, if it exists, often doesn’t point to precisely your house. If you want to meet someone on a beach or in a park, it becomes quite difficult. You have to give long-winded descriptions and you often don’t meet people. If you move into more developing parts of the world, they don’t have street addresses. What3word set out to solve that problem.
There is a system out there actually that does cover the world and it’s incredibly precise and those are GPS coordinates. They are fantastic but they are incredibly difficult to use because you’ve got eighteen numbers to remember and communicate. If you mix up a couple of those numbers, you end up going to the wrong place. What we have done is we’ve come up with a user-friendly version of GPS coordinates. We’ve cut the world up into 57 trillion, three-meter by three-meter or ten-foot by ten-foot squares, and we’ve given each one of those squares a unique three-word address. We’ve done that in 26 different languages. I can say, “Table, chair, lamp,” and I referred to a very specific three meters square somewhere in the world.
What surprised me at first was that I move one square over and it’s a completely different word. Is that by design?
That was exactly by design, yes. It’s a nonhierarchical system which messes with some people’s heads. The reason that we’ve done that is to make small errors incredibly obvious. For example, if I tried to make it hierarchical, so I put table chair lamp next to table chair stamp, and if I muddled up, misheard or mis-set one of those words, I would end up in the region, but not at the precise spot. What we have done is we’ve put table, chair, lamp in America and table, chair, damp in Australia. If you make a tiny error it’s incredibly obvious. You’re not going to set off to Australia. You’re highly likely to go five miles down the road in New York. It’s a non-hierarchical system by design because that gives you error detection.
Once I got used to that I go, “That’s the way to do it.” It’s like having the GPS coordinates but you don’t have to remember it. For some reason, because the words are random or mostly I play with it and I don’t have a friend using it, I’ve never been able to remember. I can’t tell you right now where I’m sitting. I can look it up in ten seconds but I can’t remember. I would have guessed that if I’m always going to be at a book, chair, stamp, that would be easy to remember as a home address.
It’s a great way to remember a home address and just as you do with postcodes and zip codes. You repeat it a couple of times and it’s in your long-term memory. The thing about What3words is perfect in short-term memory. It is not necessarily the places that you go to all the time. It’s actually, “Should we go meet at the towpath on the canal? Where should we meet?” If someone says, “Index, home, raft,” you can remember that in your short-term memory long enough to do something with. Put it into the app to write it down and it makes that much easier. Your ability to hold anything over ten digits in your head is nigh on impossible as well as GPS coordinates.
They’re about twice anyone can remember. It’s something I haven’t put too much thought into before this idea of where to meet on the path or what’s my spot on the beach? I can remember times in life when that would have been great to have. If I decide to go to the beach, announced that I’m there to my friends, tell them to get the app, they can use it in that way. I can send the coordinates and have them click on it and see where it is.
We’ve got a free app, which you can download. We’ve also got a website which you can use to find three-word addresses. There’s no cost. It’s free for individuals to use. Yes, meeting on the beach is perfect, but actually what we’re seeing is that in developed parts of the world, it’s also incredibly useful for buildings. If I wanted to meet you at an office building, I type in the business name. The pin often drops in the center of the building. If you’re in New York, you’re in a block, it’s has got four sides and it takes you a couple of minutes to wander around and find the right entrance, which is frustrating. It’s confusing. It’s annoying, especially if you’re trying to get into a meeting and you’re late. If you’re a delivery company and you’re doing that a couple of hundred times a day and you can’t find the right entrance, that’s costly. If you’re a first responder and you’re getting into an emergency and you can’t find the right entrance, the implications can be far more significant. It’s for beaches, parks but also big cities.
I live in Las Vegas. There are buildings where you could get lost and they’re designed to get lost because you pass through the casino, even though it’s a resort with a lot more options. If you want to get to a restaurant, you’re going to walk through a casino and you can’t figure out where it is sometimes. You can’t see the other side.
At one of the events we’ve met at, the front entrance of the hotel, we had to walk about a mile to head to the right spot. There was an entrance much closer, but it doesn’t show up on the mapping system. What we’re seeing is a lot of hotels are adding the three-word addresses for their various entrances to their contact pages. They’re adding it as a super zip code after their traditional street address. They will say, “The delivery entrance is this three-word address. The staff entrance is this three-word address and the public entrance is this three-word address,” so people can find the precise spots.
That seems like a big thing for adoption. For instance, we calculated once that the people that come here and visit was 22 times the population of Las Vegas. We spread the whole word. If we get a casino to post this and say, “Use this app,” that’s big. I’m so frustrated that we still have problems like when I get in an Uber and they try to take me to the back. I use Uber Pool, I love meeting people. I get into Uber Pool and we go to pick up somebody in an apartment complex and it seems like three out of four times they’ll try to get us to go to the locked gate that no one ever uses in the back.
It happens all the time. It’s amazing that we’re the most connected that we’ve ever been, yet we still find it acceptable to stand on the corner of a street waving on the telephone to your ride saying, “No, I’m the guy over here.” What we’re seeing is as well as people putting three-word addresses on the contact pages, on the business cards, we’ve actually been built into ride-hailing apps as well. The largest ride-hailing app in Latin America is called Cabify. They built this in so you can order a pick up two or three-word address and a drop off two or three-word address for exactly that reason.
Why aren’t Uber and Lyft using this?
We’re in discussions with all of the players that you might imagine.
Is there an objection or is it just a matter of getting it through the inertia?
What we’ve seen is that the kind of people that adopt and understand this system, we termed them as ambitious innovators. They are people who see that they’re huge like yourself. You heard about the system, you immediately lost 45 minutes of your life on the site. The applications for this are phenomenal. We see that across the businesses, the people and the users that we talk to. With Cabify, we met a bunch of their senior people who instantly got it. They have got a major problem. It’s a massive frustration. This is a way that they can differentiate their service to other ride-hailing companies. They built this in super quick.
I can’t see there being any objection other than the fact that it takes time and effort to implement anything. Compared to lightning up my phone so I can hold it up and be recognized, which seemed like that had been some major undertaking for them to do. If I got to put in the three words or found the three words on my app or even the geo-coordinates to them, because often I see I’m there, it shows where I’m standing. The person coming to pick up doesn’t know whether to turn left or right to get there.
Often, they attempt to turn that pin back into a street address. They go to the nearest street address, which causes complications.
It throws you back in the building or across the parking lot. That happens to me all the time.
The way that we structure our business is that the system is free for everybody to use via our app and our website. You can buy our license code and you can build up code into your own services and businesses. Cabify is one. We’re being used by delivery companies and postal services all over the world. We’ve been built into Mercedes-Benz vehicles. You can get into a Mercedes, you say, “Mercedes, navigate to word-word-word,” and it knows exactly where you want to go. Voice is interesting. Voice is becoming the way that we will input data into devices and into machines. It will become a way that we want to enter addresses into machines. The problem is if I get into my car and I say, “Take me to church road,” the car says “There are fourteen church roads within a ten-mile radius, which one do you want to go to?” If I’m in Mexico City, I say, “I want to go to Juarez Street.” It says, “There are 653 Juarez Streets, which one do you want?” It’s massively confusing. There’s a huge duplication. It’s not an easy way to navigate. I have to pull over the drop buttons. Ambitious innovators saw that there was this benefit that you could jump into a car, say three words, there’s no arrow, it knows exactly where you want to go and it goes there. They built us into the car within six months. There are over a million cars on the road that use this service.
I saw a video people producing more photos through satellites. There’s a private system virtually covering the entire world in a day with one shot a day. It was amazing to see that there were more than clouds moving because there are clouds in those photos. Sooner or later you get a good shot even if there is a lot of cloud cover and they virtually get everything. Imagine saying the three words, getting a satellite photo of where you’re going and then the exact map directions to get there. As much as using GPS in the first place is great, this will be another step or a leap forward like that. What can I do to help other than tell a whole lot of people? What things can an average person do that doesn’t have a podcast?
You always ask for a three-word address and I always gave a three-word address. Whenever you’re meeting anybody, to avoid any doubt and any miscommunication, always ask and always give a three-word address.
Do I put a line on my business card with that? Do I put 3W with a colon? How do you know what they are?
We have a number of ways of doing that. There’s a short code, which is W3W.co/wordwordword or we just use the three slashes. Actually, Mercedes-Benz also invested in our company, but they’ve put us onto their business card ordering template. Anybody in the world who owns a Mercedes-Benz can add their three-word address as you say to their business card and hand that out.
They can actually put what desks are at.
The other thing is we are seeing people use us every day in their personal lives if they’re meeting people. We’re also seeing photographers, journalists, location scouts and mural painters using us. Anybody who’s got a job and moving around on a frequent basis.
Online or even on a business card, you put a URL and it’s easy enough to find it there and that introduces somebody the whole system. I don’t normally carry a business card. I’m all for being paperless. Next time I have a reason I will make sure I put on my meeting invites.
If we’re going to interview someone or meet them at a large convention in Vegas, you say, “How about we meet here?” Then send them the three-word address. For example, whenever I travel, if I’m staying at an Airbnb, I’ll always ask for the three-word address because I don’t want to be wandering around a foreign city often in a language I don’t speak trying to find a spot. That’s another project that we’ve done with Airbnb. We’ve been working with them to identify and help nomadic populations get onto the platform. We’ve been working with nomads in Mongolia who have a tough time tourists finding them. Every time they move, they have to move every couple of weeks. They update the three-word address of where they are so that renters can find them. Airbnb sees the challenges, not just in the outskirts of Mongolia, but many other parts of the world. It’s difficult to find places.
Even somebody that’s homeless living on the street has a three-word address.
We have been using a number of those circumstances for disaster relief and for identification. We are doing some work in one of the largest refugee camps in the world in Uganda. It’s called the Rhino Camp. There’s a team of 50 previously unemployed individuals who are going around educating everybody about What3words and giving them their three-word address. When they go to register to vote or when they go to the health center, they say, “What’s your address?” All of a sudden, they have one which enables them to track better, to do follow-ups and legal recognition of an address. It takes a number of things. It would take a government to recognize the address of a homeless person to be in three words.
We’re moving that direction and obviously I can see the civil rights type people saying, “You shouldn’t have services withheld because you don’t have a street address.”
If you look at the midterms in the US with the Native Americans being unable to vote because they didn’t have an address, this is a solution that solves that.
What about Japan? I’ve been to the airport, but I understand the addresses are a completely different system of the neighborhood, the block and the numbers. It seems very logical.
Every where’s got a slightly different way of doing addressing system. The UN reckons that 75% of the countries in the world don’t have a well-maintained street addressing system. Even in somewhere like Japan, which is incredibly developed and has got a street addressing system, the way that they number their buildings is based on when the building was built, not where. You might go from 1 to 13 to 27 to 2 in sequence without any way to understand that. Plus if you’re a traveler there, it’s incredibly difficult to decipher the characters. We are available in Japanese. We’ve addressed the entire planet every ten-meter by ten-meter square in Japanese, but equally you can go to Tokyo, ask for a three-word address in English and navigate the city well. Sony is another one of our investors, obviously a big Japanese company. They recognize the challenge and they’ve also taken a stake in the company.
75% of the world needs and address and can just skip and use it. They actually don’t need an address. They have one. You already gave them one.
The system is built, which takes decades and costs tens of millions.
In Chinese, is it a character per three characters?
It’s still a word. It would be a combination of characters. It’s more like a three-phrase address. That’s one of the nuances of the language, but they were still recognized as three-word address.
I would like to look at it. I’m sure I won’t understand it. The future of this is that we are able to treat people equally. A lot of what I do is with blockchain. It’s more than just cryptocurrency. Goods, records and everything can be universal for the world. I can actually deliver something to Uganda and know that it’s going to be the right address.
It’s a global system which has democratized addressing. In combination with blockchain, land registry is a major challenge in many parts of the world. There are definitely some synergies there, but our mission is to become a global standard. We want to give everybody a way to talk about everywhere and all of the benefits that come with that, whether that is voting rights, whether that’s access to aid, whether that means you can open a bank account or just meet your friends at a festival.
Whether or not you own property, the deed can have a three-word address on it. Because I pushed for distributor all the time, tell us about that. Are you the centralized control of the addresses? They’re not going to change because you’ve covered the whole world. Does it become something that can be decentralized where you aren’t the sole control of this or is there any reason to worry about control?
The system is an algorithm. I have all 57 trillion in 27 languages on my phone. It doesn’t need to go to a central hub to understand.
You can’t cut us off.
That means the address is open-sourced that you’ve created them.
The algorithm is not an open-sourced. We’re a commercial concern, so we license out the algorithm to businesses who can make or save a considerable amount of money or improve their customer experience. For aid and humanitarian, the system is free or there’s a nominal fee. The UN and the Red Cross use us for free. For individuals, the app and website are free as well. We’re trying to make it as accessible as possible, and we’re trying to do good in the world whilst generating revenue to ensure that the system continues and can grow and we can add languages, we can add voice and all the other things that you like to do.
It’s like GPS, but there’s an owner of GPS, but somebody has to pay for the satellites. In your case, the cost is much less than launching satellites. I am going to take action. Even though the podcast lives on the internet, I’m going to find something like my business office and post it on the page.
I’ll send you a couple of fantastic three-word addresses around Las Vegas. When we were there, we went to some great places and captured the three-word addresses of some of them.
Does the app record where you’ve been or have the option to record where you’ve been so you can remember that address?
Yes, you can save three-word addresses, add a label and remember them on the website and in the app.
The way I look at it is my phone’s over recording everywhere I go, I’d like to have better access to that. Getting the GPS coordinates or a plot on a map, I don’t care so much, but being able to get back to them is what I care about. This is a simple way to do that.
Photographers often use us to remember a particular spot if they want to go back and take a shot at an hour or the right time. We’ve been used in those by professional photographers.
It would be quite simple to integrate it into a photo app the same way you put on date and time so it’s in that metadata.
We’re done exactly that. It’s the metadata. We had to play around as a team and a bit of a hack. We made a three-word photo app and it does exactly that. It reads the metadata, converts the GPS coordinates of that photo and drops that onto the photo. We did it as a bit of fun, but we’re seeing people are tagging amazing waterfalls in Mexico that you couldn’t find. Even people who are using it to report water main leaks or when electricity pylons go down. They’re taking photos and sending that on Twitter to the authorities saying, “I’ve seen this. Can someone get out and repair it, find it or pick it up?”
I’m going to get the three-word address on my favorite restaurant. The next time I need to meet somebody there, I will tell them to use it. Not only am I a convert and love this and promote you wherever I can and simply to get it, but there’s also a free website. Anybody should go to What3words.
What3words on the App Stores or on the website. Come and check us out, put in your home address and go and see What3words have been allocated to your front door, your back door, your carport, your swimming pool, people moving around and find that particular three-word address that they want to use.
I’ll do further research when it’s sunny, you’re laying out on the patio and doing my work there. I quite often say that my address is important. I can go anywhere with my phone and work, but I haven’t thought about the implications of a digital nomad, a person who lives as an expat being able to use this in so many ways. I’m looking forward to pushing my favorite Rideshare apps and mapping solutions to use this.
Give them a nudge.
I will do that. Every little nudge helps. You’re doing good work there. I appreciate you being on. You can find out more at What3words.com or get the app and start using it. Thanks a lot, Giles.
About Giles Rhys Jones
Giles has spent 20 years in advertising, the last 10 at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. Specialising in global digital strategy his clients included Unilever, Dove, IBM, HP, British Airways, Cisco & Philips.
With them, he won awards for ground-breaking integrated, digital, mobile, social and outdoor campaigns, and developed a brand-inspired prime time entertainment TV show. He loves taking innovative approaches to help set up teams, divisions and agencies, including Saatchi Vision, Agency.com, AgencyRepublic, Ogilvy Labs UK, Ogilvy Entertainment UK.
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