Address a problem?

Image supplied by Design Indaba

Defining your exact location can be a tricky business. Canal Walk Shopping Centre, for example, has one address but many entrances, and what about places without addresses? How do we know where to send aid packages in war-torn areas where streets have been destroyed? How do people in rural areas with little to no infrastructure receive mail or deliveries?

Chris Sheldrick has an innovative answer to those very questions. Kaylon Koeries and Nadia Krige caught up with him at Design Indaba to find out more about what3words, a brilliant new way to pinpoint a location worldwide.

How did what3words come about?

I was in the music business and everywhere we had to go, there was a new place to meet up every day. I had to circulate this address to bands; trying to find a particular place every day was much harder than it needed to be. People got lost despite using the address they had been given, they were not ending up at the right place. What I realised is that addresses around the world are not that good, we’re still using technology from decades ago (named and numbered streets).

This Artscape building has loads of entrances, but you only have one address for the whole place, this was the nightmare I endured. What I tried doing was getting people to use GPS coordinates, which are very precise, more so than addresses. What I experienced was that people were very resistant to being told to turn up at 27.1683924˚N. The idea was to simplify this as much as possible into a more human-friendly system. We threw some ideas around and came up with the idea of using three words. There are enough combinations of three words that you can name every three square metres in the world, uniquely.

How did you even discover that?

If you need a very short number of something in a sequence, you would need a long list of variables. We know ten numbers, 26 letters but we know a lot more words. We experimented with words, divided the world into 57 trillion three-square-metre blocks and named each of them with three words which was much easier to use than latitude and longitude.

How were the words selected?

The words have no relevance to the places. They were randomly selected. There are some rules though: we use shorter and easier words in towns and cities and longer or more complicated words in unpopulated areas like oceans.

Chris Sheldrick presenting what3words at Design Indaba

Chris Sheldrick presenting what3words at Design Indaba

Who have you partnered with; who is currently making use of the system?

It’s had widespread success. All throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia, addressing is not great. We are being used in about 170 countries for all sorts of things. There are a lot of navigation apps like NavMe, the world’s biggest offline navigation app, that have integrated what3words into their system. The UN have used the system in their disaster recovery app, UN-ASIGN. The postal services of Mongolia, Ivory Coast and Djibouti are now using this as an official system, so you could send a letter or package to a three-word address.

A recent project here in South Africa is with an organisation called Gateway Health, who take pregnant women to hospital when they’re about to give birth. Their issue is that when people call for an ambulance, they find it hard to explain where they live very easily. Gateway Health has been telling people what the three-word address for their homes are and told them to use it when calling for an ambulance.

We are also working with [courier company] Aramex to help them deliver packages in places where addresses are inaccurate or non-existent.

Do you see this possibly replacing the conventional addressing system?

I think that if you have a traditional address that works for you it’s great. What we are trying to be is a viable alternative to that. We want to be a standard, if you see three words we want you to understand it and know how to use it. We’d never encourage people to not use something else that works for them.

Where do you see this going?

We want this to be a standard. People should be able to use three words to call a taxi, order a package or use it as proof of address – basically anything you can currently do with a regular address; the two should be interchangeable.

what3words is available on iOS,  Android and online


Back to Top