This Startup Slices the World Into 57 Trillion Squares

PUBLISHED BY David Rocks & Nate Lanxon

SOURCE Bloomberg Businessweek

August 27, 2018

Many places lack a system for addresses. What3Words’ solution is to give every spot a three-word designation.

The 30,000 residents of Tzaneen, South Africa, live in stately homes and compact cottages on the town’s wide boulevards and tidy streets. But in the surrounding area, more than 400,000 others inhabit mud huts, one-room cinder block bungalows, or ramshackle brick structures at citrus plantations and informal farms along roads that wind through the bush. Nikki Stuart-Thompson serves these people with a nonprofit that provides health care to the poor.

But before she can help them, she needs to find them, which isn’t always easy. There are villages with thousands of residents but no street addresses and places with houses strung out every few hundred yards on dirt paths. In some cases, Stuart-Thompson says, family members carry patients to the nearest road because it’s unlikely an ambulance driver will ever locate their home. “The amount of time that’s wasted circling, trying to find the right house, is unbelievable,” says Stuart-Thompson, director of CHoiCe Trust, a development group in Tzaneen. “You’re getting directions from someone who doesn’t have a car, and they tell you, ‘Look for the post office and then the bar, then go down the road for a while, and you see a house.’ It’s totally vague.”

So last year, when Stuart-Thompson heard about a system that could help her workers navigate directly to any location in the region with a margin of error of only a few feet, she quickly embraced the idea. It didn’t matter that the addresses were nonsensical three-word phrases such as lakefront.boundless.vitals (that’s her office), orchestra.grapeseed.sergeants (a local clinic), or file.trod.explicable (the hospital).

The idea was developed by What3Words Ltd., a mapping startup in London. What3Words licenses its system to companies such as Daimler AG and TomTom NV, which have incorporated its addresses into their navigation systems. The postal services of eight countries or territories, including Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, and Nigeria, deliver mail with them. Domino’s Pizza drivers on the Caribbean island of St. Martin use three words to bring pies to customers’ doorsteps.

To use the service, simply open the company’s smartphone app and type in a three-word address. The app offers directions through services such as Google Maps and can even help call an Uber. (The company’s app and website will also convert a regular address into a three-word one if you haven’t memorized yours yet.) The app is free for consumers, but companies using the system—for example, to allow users to quickly input an address while driving—pay a licensing fee. What3Words says it charges governments and nonprofits such as Stuart-Thompson’s much less than what corporate customers pay.

Replacing the traditional system of streets and house numbers might seem absurd, more art project than business. But in Tzaneen and the many other places around the world that lack formal addresses, it’s a potentially radical shift. “It seemed so random, just weird words, and that’s going to take me somewhere?” Stuart-Thompson says. But with the system, her group can handle about 20 percent more cases in a given week, and it’s easier on staff members, who don’t need to connect with a local to guide them to clients. “Once you get beyond the strange words,” she says, “you can see how helpful it is.”

Read the full article on Bloomberg Businessweek.

Find more information on what3words here.