Investigating the potential of what3words

Apr 11, 2019

GDR Innovation Researcher Charlie Lloyd assesses location-based start-up what3words to investigate its potential for retailers and hospitality brands.

Four years ago, GDR published a case study about what3words, a British start-up hoping to revolutionise navigation through its technology that divides the entire world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares. At the time, what3words was ready for business and seeking out the first companies to implement its API. Fast forward to 2019 and the company appears to be going from strength to strength. New uses of the technology are coming in thick and fast: just last month, The Times reported that emergency services in the UK have started to use the what3words app to help locate callers. In light of the app’s growing popularity, I decided to take a fresh look at the technology to investigate its potential.


What is it?

In the company’s own words, it’s “the simplest way to talk about location”. what3words divides the entire surface of the planet into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, each of which has its own unique identifier – a three word address. This blog post is being written, for example, from my desk in Through the what3words app, users can find their three word address and send that precise location to others to show exactly where they are.

To name each of the world’s 60 trillion squares, what3words uses 40,000 English words, having removed any that sound alike. Swear words were also ruled out, which my inner 12-year-old was disappointed but not surprised to discover. The absence of homophones is important because what3words sees its future in a world in which voice technology is ubiquitous. Memorable names that are easy to relay over the phone or to a machine give the technology an edge over its competitors: Google has devised a similar grid for its Plus Codes but each square is named using an alpha-numeric system (through Google, my desk can be found at a square named, somewhat less memorably, GVC9+X9M).


How is it being used?

what3words has identified four key areas in which its address system is beginning to make a substantial impact: logistics, travel, automobility and emergency services. Let’s start with logistics.

According to the company, poor address systems affect 75% of countries around the world. That’s a huge amount of territory ripe for disruption, and it’s in some of these countries that what3words has been making its biggest impact. Saudi Arabia has been fertile ground for what3words: Domino’s Pizza uses the system there, as does Saudi ecommerce platform Wadi, among others. More impressively, in Mongolia the government has actually done away with its old address system altogether and implemented what3words’ in its place.

The technology can make things easier for delivery companies in the 25% of countries that do have reliable address systems too. Nearly all of us have a horror story about a package that didn’t turn up or a takeaway that went cold because the driver had trouble locating the entrance of a building, or even the building itself. Even when using satellite navigation, pins are often dropped in the middle of an address, and the confusion that follows can lose time and money for delivery companies, not to mention the goodwill of its customers.

Similarly, the travel and tourism industry is beginning to use what3words to help visitors locate hotels and attractions. Lonely Planet have started to list three word addresses in guidebooks for points of interest, and a partnership with Airbnb saw the platform list the world’s most remote Airbnbs in Mongolia addressed by using what3words. Many of Airbnb’s experiences are off the beaten track, and so it’s easy to see the value of having some extra help locating your host in the foothills of the Andes. Even in Western cities there are hyper-specific spots a hotel might want to let its guests know about – a particular taco stall at a food market for instance – for which a conventional address will only get you so far.


Can’t all this be done by dropping a pin?

Yes and no. A pin on Google Maps is great when the sender and recipient are both online and on the same platform, but for verbal and printed communication there’s an advantage in having a lexical reference. Digital pins can be linked to the latter with QR codes though, and so it stands to reason that what3words is and will be most impactful in verbal location communication.

This brings us onto automobility. Several leading car manufacturers, including Ford and Mercedes, have integrated what3words into their navigation systems, as has TomTom which supplies those systems for many others. If voice navigation continues to proliferate as many expect it to (and certainly if the ever-imminent roll-out of autonomous vehicles comes to pass), then what3words has a real shot at becoming a mainstream method of communicating GPS locations.

Of course, there’s no accounting for what exactly the future has in store: it could well be that an autonomous vehicle’s passenger simply has to flick the pin from their phone to the car’s nav. But pins, for now anyway, are far from perfect and this is why emergency services in the UK have started using what3words. Identifying a caller’s precise location using the phone’s GPS is possible without it, but sharing that location verbally is so much quicker than sharing a pin – and pin sharing isn’t always possible.

Emergency services need to communicate across teams and platforms fast, and what3words’ system provides a solution. Just last month, news broke of the first instance of what3words being used to successfully rescue a kidnapping victim. The caller was sent a link that generated her 3 word address, she relayed that address back to the operator, and a team was dispatched.

While it’s impossible to predict the long-term future, with a growing number of big-name brands from disparate industries finding that it’s a solution that addresses their various problems, what3words is clearly in the ascendency. And with voice-enabled devices on a similar upward trajectory, we may well be hearing the name a lot more in the coming months and years.


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