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Mapping the Globe with 3 Words and 57 Trillion Squares: How what3words Wants to Revolutionize Addresses

Watching people navigate big cities with their faces glued to a smartphone screen, it's hard to comprehend that four billion people around the world don't have a fixed address. But in many parts of the globe beyond street grids and mapping software, directing someone to your home is a challenge often beyond the skills of Siri. Chris Sheldrick, the co-founder and CEO of British startup what3words, has a simple solution. In fact, it's so simple, it can be summed up in three words. His company has divided the entire globe, both land and sea, into 57 trillion three-by-three meter squares, and assigned each one a three-word address. While it seems redundant to layer the globe with another electronic map, Sheldrick believes the precision and universality of this addressing system has numerous business and development implications.

The idea came to Sheldrick during his former life as a global music promoter, where he dealt firsthand with the issues inherent with spotty address systems, including logistics nightmares and trouble finding remote locations. During one particularly painful event, a driver in Italy flipped the latitude and longitude he was given and delivered supplies to the wrong hillside. In 2013, he founded what3words to address his own business problems, and discovered it had applicability far beyond setting up concert stages.

The system, which includes an Android and OS app and an API, is based on three-word phrases generated via an algorithm. According to marketing director Giles Rhys Jones, the coordinates are drawn from a list of 40,000 English words based on pronounceability and usage to help make them more memorable (homophones, such as sail/sale, have been eliminated). While they have mapped the entire globe in English—you can find your address on their site—the company has added, and plans to continue to add, other languages. The designers settled on three-by-three meter squares with three words because larger units would be impractical, and smaller units would require more words.

"What3words could be incredibly useful for a delivery company, where 30 percent of the costs come in the last mile," says Rhys Jones. "But it's a world-changing idea in the developing world, when you talk about locating drops for emergency supplies, or locating a well for water."

From their home office in London (what3word address: index, home, raft), the company is working on expanding into different realms of mapping, addressing and navigating, discussing projects with non-profits and talking to delivery companies about creating more accurate routes and logistics. They're also in negotiations with mapping software companies to integrate into their systems.

Rhys Jones says some early users have found amusing addresses with words that relate to the jobs being performed at a certain location. He's assured the algorithm is random and there aren't any "Easter egg" like locations on the map.

"People have turned it into a game, and written poetry," he says. "But one man's funny three words is another's life-saving address."

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