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Wayfinding XChange Podcast: A simpler way to talk about location


Wayfinding XChange Podcast: A simpler way to talk about location


Wayfinding XChange Podcast: A simpler way to talk about location

A simpler way to talk about location

A simpler way to talk about location

Giles Rhys Jones, Chief Marketing Officer at what3words

In this episode of the Wayfinding Xchange Podcast, Gideon catches up with Giles Rhys Jones, Chief Marketing Officer at what3words. They discuss all things what3words, and how the revolutionary locating system is changing the world of navigation – one 3-metre square at a time.

New to what3words? The premise is simple enough: divide the entire planet into 57 trillion 3-metre squares, and define each square by 3 words. From mountain rescue to parcel delivery – the impact on global navigation is almost immeasurable.

Listen to the 38-minute episode in full or read the article summary below.

A simpler way to find your way

Street maps and traditional locating systems like GPS are great. They cover the world. But what3words goes one step further, giving every 3-metre square – on the entire planet – its own 3-word address.

For everyone from delivery drivers to first responders, losing time trying to find a precise location – such as a building or the site of a street accident – can have real consequences. We’ve all been there. You enter a postcode address on a digital mapping tool, only to discover that the entrance is hidden away somewhere. Give people a what3words address, and they’ll know exactly where to go.

Founder Chris Sheldrick used to organise music events around the world, ensuring bands and equipment arrived at the right spot at the right time. That could be anything from a specific gate at a music arena to a remote château in France. He was constantly frustrated by poor postal addresses. So he started using GPS coordinates. What could go wrong?

Quite a lot as it happens. Chris would write the coordinates on a piece of paper, give it to a roadie, and then wait for the almost inevitable phone call: “I think I’m at the right place. But I’m not sure.” Whether the digits were misread (like 1 instead of 7) or the address was unbelievably hard to find, mistakes were common.

Talking to a mathematician friend about the problem, the pair had a eureka moment. What if they replaced GPS coordinates with words? How many words would they need? They soon established that a 3-metre by 3-metre square was small enough to be useful. Any smaller and there would be too many squares.

That meant a wordlist of 40,000 words would provide enough unique combinations to address the entire planet.

More people, fewer errors

what3words began with 5 people. It’s now grown to 150 people in 4 countries, and 60 languages – and counting. Today, people use it for all manner of purposes – from finding their mates at a festival to helping emergency services locate people in trouble. Since Alison Richings interviewed Giles for the article The future of mapping the world with what3words in 2021, the system has seen huge growth.

Every single square on the planet now has a what3words address in 60 languages. The words differ, but the approach is the same. Commonly-used, and often shorter, words designate squares in highly populated areas, whereas longer words are used for less-densely inhabited areas – such as the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

With GPS coordinates, a single-digit error could refer to a nearby location – making it hard to spot a mistake – until arrival. The free app also makes helpful suggestions based on the user’s existing location. Similar sounding combinations are deliberately placed far apart to make errors obvious. Take this example. The square table.chair.damp is in the US. The table.chair.lamp is in Australia. Anyone mishearing the former as the latter would instantly know they had the wrong location because it’s on a different continent.

Becoming a household name

Like any new and innovative tech, what3words began with early adopters, people into their tech who saw it as cool and elegant. Awareness of what3words in the UK has steadily grown through a series of marketing efforts – including television commercials.

what3words is now a household name, with around 75% of the UK population aware of the brand. In fact, it’s now at the stage where people use ‘what3words’ as a synonym for precision, as evidenced by Annalisa Barbieri’s recent article in The Guardian, which opens with: “I’m in Essex. Braintree, to be precise. Braintree Village to be what3words about it.”

Over time, a number of exciting use cases have emerged. Businesses increasingly use it to help customers locate hard-to-find premises. App activity tends to spike at festivals, with people trying to locate each other. The London Marathon used it to coordinate people at the end of the event.

In the UK, major delivery companies – including Yodel, Evri, and DHL – now accept what3words delivery addresses. Car manufacturers such as Mercedes, Jaguar, and Lamborghini, have adopted voice-activated navigation technology with what3words enabled – no more typing a postcode or, worse still, GPS coordinates.

Not another navigation service

The practical possibilities of this innovation – beyond getting musical equipment to the right place at the right time – soon became clear. People use addresses every single day of their lives, from online orders to catching an Uber.

The growing number of use cases has actually created a challenge for the company in terms of knowing where to focus its efforts. It’s even spawned its own cottage industry on ecommerce platforms – such as Etsy – with multiple products bearing a what3words location, from dog collars to doormats.

The smartphone app and web app are free to use for anyone looking to identify a what3words address. But in countries like South Korea, people don’t use the what3words app. That’s because it's integrated with the popular mapping tool – Kakao Maps. Tap on a location or type into the search bar, and the what3words address will appear.

The what3words app is not another navigation service. That’s because the underlying technology works best when integrated with existing navigation solutions, like built-in satellite navigation systems and digital maps. It’s fast becoming a standard for navigating locations from search bars to AI assistants. It’s even been used by people flagging potholes to local authorities by messaging the what3words address.

A public safety campaign in Belgium saw parents write their what3words address on a wristband and give it to their kids. If the child got lost, someone could safely navigate them home. what3words has also been used in guidebooks – including those from Dorling Kindersley – to help people find places of interest.

Big tech firms like Google already hold all the world’s street addresses in a database, what’s changed is that those named, 3-metre squares add a new layer of precision. That matters in countries that are mostly rural – like the UK – where the majority of addresses and postcodes (more than 70% according to research) do not lead directly to a front door.

Places without postcodes

The UK has one of the best addressing systems in the world, and yet people still struggle to find locations that are out of the way. Street addressing is exceptionally time-consuming and expensive. As a recent example, Ireland introduced ‘eircode’ at the cost of approximately £32 million. It’s taken around a decade to implement.

But there are also parts of the planet that do not have postcodes (or the equivalent) but do have what3words. Some countries are skipping over street addresses and going straight to what3words. Case in point. After an invitation to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the company began working with the government and postal service of Mongolia. Usage now extends to banks validating people’s addresses, emergency services, and even pizza delivery.

It’s a scenario comparable to the uptake of phones in remote parts of Africa, which have actually skipped landlines and gone straight to mobile. what3words is big in India, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where street mapping can struggle to keep up with the rate of development.

Around the world, innovative use cases continue to surface. For example, in the US, LA Football Club now uses it to help fans find their way around the stadium. People are even naming products after what3words addresses. Take BrewDog’s Double IPA, Stone // Fear.Movie.Lions double IPA, for instance. It’s named after the location of its brewery in Stone.

What’s next for wayfinding what3words?

There’s something innately human about resisting the new, but what3words is gradually making inroads in multiple sectors, integrating with, and becoming part of the navigational landscape.

From mapping, to cars, to logistics, to ecommerce retailers, it’s a digital tool for helping people find their way around. The company wants to become the default for that – everywhere you would use an address. But there’s still a place for maps and analogue signs. Nothing beats a good map.

To discover more about what3words, visit their website

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