What3words changed how we map the world. And it didn't stop there

August 18, 2018

PUBLISHED BY Victoria Turk


UK startup what3words translates addresses into more than 26 languages, so that they sound just as natural in English, Thai or Swahili

How do you translate an address into 26 languages so that it sounds perfectly natural in each one? London-based startup what3words has given every location on Earth a three-word English address; now, it’s working to support as many languages as possible so that users worldwide can find any destination in their native tongue.

What3words divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, each of which is assigned a unique three-word identifier. The company’s headquarters near Portobello Market, for example, can be found at “index.home.raft”. Since being founded in 2013, it has raised over £10 million in funding, opened offices in South Africa and Mongolia, and partnered with companies from navigation app Navmii to carmaker Mercedes-Benz. In the United Arab Emirates, Aramex delivery drivers use what3words to take packages to the right house; in Nigeria, the postal service uses it to deliver mail. Order a Domino’s pizza in Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and what3words will help it arrive at your door.

But, as the company continues to expand globally, it faces the challenge of translating a product that is language-specific by definition. “When you’re talking about addressing the world, people expect to be able to do that in their own language,” says head of languages Jamie Brown. “It’s really key to our global reach to make sure people have the tools to talk about their own location in the language they’re communicating in.”

It’s not as easy as translating addresses word-for-word. The English what3words map is based on 40,000 of the most common words in English, but they may not be the most common words in Swahili. Other problems soon crop up; Brown gives the example of “snowman”, one of the words used in the English version. In French, this would be “bonhomme de neige” – already three words in itself.

So, to translate the product, the company has to start with a fresh list of words each time. It then hires native speakers to go through and whittle the list down to about 25,000 words, which, when combined in trios, is enough to cover all of the world’s landmass (the oceans are mapped only in English).

Read the full article on Wired here.

Find more information on what3words here.