Addressing the world, three words at a time

Addressing the world, three words at a time

British start-up what3words’ addressing system could eliminate the need for postal codes and street addresses.


SINGAPORE: Sending a letter to Caldecott Broadcast Centre? Instead of addressing the letter to Andrew Road, Singapore 299939, simply writing down the three words "hurls.kinds.axed" on the envelope could suffice, if British start-up what3words has its way.

Their company, what3words, has developed a simple way to refer to any location in the world using a global grid made up of 57 trillion 3mx3m squares, each tagged with a code of three English words. The grid is available on the what3words website, as well as a smartphone app which can be used offline.

what3words screengrab

A grid of London's Hyde Park from the what3words website. (Photo: what3words)

In the what3words system, the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands becomes "rust.rice.plates", instead of 6 Bayfront Avenue. Typing in "groom.preoccupied.grass" into the app will bring up the National Gallery Singapore. The Istana is "mount.loose.patch", and the Singapore Flyer, "ritual.lunch.freed".

Co-founder and CEO of what3words Chris Sheldrick said the service is far more accurate in identifying precise locations than postal addresses. “I realised that addresses around the world often point to the wrong place, or simply didn’t exist for what I wanted to describe to people. So I wanted to have some way of communicating to people exactly where I wanted them to go.”

He explained that he used to work in the music business for 10 years, and had to travel extensively for concerts. “You wouldn’t believe the difficulties I had circulating an address to musicians and suppliers,” he said. “Imagine a big stadium like Wembley Stadium in London. It’s got one address and one postal code. So it doesn’t matter which mapping app you use, you still cannot specify the exact entrance or the exact car park to meet at."

Indeed, the what3words system has proved helpful at large music festivals like Glastonbury, where people used three-word addresses to hunt down friends or locate tents. Come August, it will have a bigger application when three-word postal addresses are adopted in Mongolia.

“In Ulan Bator, only a handful of streets are actually named, and it can be frustrating for the postmen to try to find the addresses, because a lot of them are very informal. It’s a huge country and many places just have no address at all,” he said. “A lot of people actually write their phone numbers on the envelopes because they know the postmen will have to call them.”

Mr Sheldrick said he hopes more countries will follow suit, citing United Nations statistics that an estimated 4 billion people worldwide do not have an address.“It’s incredibly disempowering about not being able to talk about where you live.

“It can be difficult having a utility company to connect you up to basic services, you have no way of communicating to your local authority to bring you services, and you’ve got no chance of doing e-commerce,” he said.


But what about Singapore, where a large proportion of people live in high-rise public housing flats? Mr Sheldrick said at the moment, the app remains two-dimensional, which fulfills their main intention to get people to the entrance of buildings. But he added that this could change in the future.

“The three words will always be two-dimensional, but you might be able to specify an extra number for the height,” he explained. “It might be table.chair.spoon, and then the number 4, for the fourth floor.”

“So it then becomes three words and a number,” he added.

But Mr Sheldrick said turning this into a reality is dependent on the speed of supporting technology like indoor positioning, mapping and navigation.

“We’ll have to wait for the rest of the smartphone technology and the mapping technologies to map the indoors of all the buildings in the world, which they’ve started, but it’s proving to be a pretty long process,” he said.

So for the moment, Mr Sheldrick said in the what3words system, high-rise apartment dwellers will still need to specify their unit number on top of the three words of their building.

Mr Sheldrick said one big plan what3words has in mind is voice input for the app. “We’re speaking with car manufacturers who want you to be able to get in the car, say 'coffee.branch.pyramids', for example, and the car will be able to navigate you to where you want to go, accurate to three metres,” he said, adding that the first version is due to be rolled out within the next few months.

Source: CNA/lc