When you were a kid, probably as soon as you could string together sentences, your parents drummed into you the fact that you live at such and such Evergreen Terrace, Springfield, wherever. Nowadays, you could just make your kid remember three words, like: “engine, doors, cubs” or “life, jeeps, budget.” That string of random words is enough to point to a unique 10-square-foot patch of ground on the globe.
What3words is a company that has divvied Earth into 57 trillion squares, each with its own unique string of three identifying words. Anyone with the company’s app or website can translate locations from those words.
It’s been used to help direct emergency responders in the United Kingdom and even deliver mail in Mongolia. I spoke with Chris Sheldrick, the co-founder and CEO at What3words, and he said traditional addresses are too often imprecise and are overdue for improvement. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Chris Sheldrick: It is incredibly difficult in many parts of the world to get exactly to where you are going. And in the U.K. and the U.S., that can be getting to the right entrance of a building, even if the address points to the right place. But in so much of the world, just urban areas, or rural areas, just not properly mapped or addressed at all. We wanted to provide a very simple yet accurate way of talking about any 10-foot square in the world.
Jed Kim: I understand that addresses can be a little difficult to navigate, but I imagine a time when electricity will go out or cell service will go down. Is there a way that we could use this if we didn’t have computer or smartphone capability?
When you do have a smartphone, or a car, or some electronic device, we’re trying to simplify the way you can communicate a precise location.Chris Sheldrick
Sheldrick: You would be stuck to use a three-word address in that scenario, and you may want to pull out your map. While smartphones are here with us and functioning, then three-word addresses can provide a really, really good way to get around. Just to be clear, we’re not trying to replace addresses, or area names, or any of these historical ways that we talk about the world. What we’re trying to do is when you do have a smartphone, or a car, or some electronic device, we’re trying to simplify the way you can communicate a precise location.
Kim: How do you make money?
Sheldrick: What3words is a free app for consumers to use and a free website. We license our tech to businesses who want to convert between three-word addresses and coordinates. For example, we charge our customers like Mercedes-Benz to have What3words prefitted into their cars.
Kim: How do you see this being useful in the future as new technology develops?
Sheldrick: As new tech develops, a lot of it is all-around precision. If you think about drones and drone delivery, no longer is a postal address going to be good enough because you’re going to have to specify whether it’s a front garden or the back garden. We are starting to see that the software developers who make software for these things are putting in What3words at this very early stage, because the idea of somebody manually typing in their GPS coordinates for a drone to make a delivery seems difficult.
Related links: more insight from Jed Kim
The words are random, which can seem suspect when “///game.winning.goal” points to a spot in Brazil. What do you do if you live at “///massive.dinosaur.pile”? Can you lobby for a change? Sheldrick said no, that’s locked in. But you could just pick an adjacent square.
By the way, you can’t use What3words on Google or Apple Maps yet. Still, I’ve had fun looking up locations on What3words’s map. If you’re searching for an “///able.bodied.gentleman,” you’ll have to swim. He’s far off the coast of Chile.
If you’re skeptical of What3words and its mapping, you’re not alone. One What3words skeptic, blogger Terence Eden, takes issue with a lot of what the company offers. Most of all, he doesn’t like that the company’s algorithm is proprietary, therefore secret, which he says goes against the open-source feel it’s going for. One interesting side note he points out is that tectonic shift means many spots will someday have to change the three words associated with their locations.
There’s no place I’d rather be right now than “///punk.unfriendly.cooking.”
If you’re nervous about tech companies knowing and utilizing your location data, you might not like that Apple appears to be preparing to hyper-boost future phone models’ tracking and locating capabilities. VentureBeat said leaked specs for a co-processor codenamed “Rose” amps up phones’ sensors. With it, an iPhone will be able to tell when it’s falling and the way it and other accessories are laid out in a room. Future phones could also contain “ultra-wideband” wireless radio technology that will allow items to be pinpointed to with 10-30 centimeters of their locations.
Good luck finding me in my “///secret.underground.headquarters” —according to this app, it’s not too far north of New Orleans.
The future of this podcast starts with you.
Every day, the Marktplace Tech team demystifys the digital economy with stories that explore more than just “Big Tech.” We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.
As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.