what3words’s smart addressing system arrives in Asia
By Min Chen
When Jumpstart sat down with what3words (W3W) CMO Giles Rhys Jones at ///interacts.dormant.nutrients, he was about to fly to ///supplied.depended.bedrock to support the company’s recent expansion in Asia. This sentence may sound confusing, but it won’t be the case for long–according to W3W’s plan, that is.
Founded in 2013, W3W is a geocoding system that divides the world into 57 trillion three-meter-by-three-meter squares, whereby each square is given an identifier, or ‘address,’ made up of three dictionary words. Frustrated by the logistical difficulties of getting bands to gigs on time as a talent manager, W3W Co-founder and CEO Chris Sheldrick came up with the idea of creating a mnemonic system that allows for the accuracy of longitude and latitude coordinates without the impossible-to-remember string of numbers.
Sheldrick immediately recognized that his solution to error-prone street addressing systems had endless applications, and began to develop W3W with his co-founders: serial entrepreneur Jack Waley-Cohen and Mohan Ganesalingam, who is a researcher and mathematician. In six years, the London-headquartered company scaled to a team of over a hundred, recently raising £40 million in its Series C round with investors including Intel, Deutsche Bahn, SAIC, and the Sony Investment Fund.
W3W’s core technology consists of a proprietary algorithm and database with a file size of around ten megabytes. The company’s primary revenue generation comes from the B2B side, where it licenses its code to over 1,000 companies in the automobility, travel, ecommerce, and logistics industries. They include Cabify, Airbnb, Domino’s Pizza, and Aramex, to name a few.
The uncrewed aerial vehicle and geographic information system industries have also shown interest in the precision that the system offers; commercial drone developer Hylio and geodatabase management company Esri are using W3W’s application programming interface. On the B2C side, the company operates a free app that can be used offline.
The public sector has been looking to W3W for improving the addressing system. In the case of Mongolia, which is now one of six countries to officially adopt the system, W3W worked with governing bodies to develop a Mongolian version after meeting their representatives at the World Economic Forum.
“They have a vast country–very nomadic, and with a lot of informal settlements. [W3W] is accepted by the postal service and the leading banks there. Lonely Planet just released their latest guide to Mongolia, and every single listing has a three-word address,” says Jones.
The W3W team is also well aware of the addressing system’s relevance in the fields of emergency response and humanitarian aid, where location accuracy is crucial. The technology is offered to non-profit organizations at zero cost and the company announced in March this year that it has introduced the system to several police forces and emergency services throughout the United Kingdom.
In a Tweet dated July 6, the South Yorkshire Police [@SouthYorkshirePolice] stated: “Yesterday one of our call handlers used @what3words to successfully locate and dispatch officers to a man who had fallen down a railway embankment in #Sheffield […]”
In December last year, W3W worked alongside HumanTech Innovation Lab and the Community Development Centre to build its technology into refugee settlements in Uganda. Rhino Refugee Camp and its 116,000 inhabitants are now able to navigate the camp’s homes and facilities more efficiently.
“We are being built into a hundred thousand pound Mercedes-Benz, but on the flip-side, we’re being used in slums to address people, so they can get lighting systems,” says Jones. “The applications are phenomenal.”
As W3W’s use cases continue to expand, the company is directing its attention to growing its footprint globally. A milestone in its Asia expansion efforts is the system’s integration with South Korea’s leading superapp Kakao, as it marked W3W’s first collaboration with a major mapping platform, KakaoMaps. The company believes that such partnerships are integral for increasing mindshare in new markets.
“If I wanted to meet you somewhere, I could send you the three-word address of precisely where that is, in English or Korean,” says Jones. “The whole idea is that we would be built into apps and services.”
W3W is currently available in 36 languages, each of which is developed as a separate product. As one would expect, the process is by no means straightforward. The connotations associated with certain words are often complex and nuanced, which is why W3W works closely with a team of professional linguists. For example, swear words are omitted and alcohol-related words are not included in the Arabic version because they can be culturally insensitive.
Every new version also requires unique features to be built into W3W’s error-detection system. Firstly, homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently, are removed. Also, words used for urban areas are easier to remember, and locations with similar words are placed further apart to avoid potential miscommunication.
Jones uses the example of ///table.chair.lamp, which is located in Australia. If the user accidentally types ///table.chair.damp, it will be immediately evident that the three-word address is incorrect because the square is located in the U.S. He notes that error prevention will be even more important as voice-first interfaces become commonplace.
“If I get into my car in London and say, take me to Church Road, the car will respond: there are fourteen Church Roads, which one do you want to go to? Then, it has to read out every single one of those Church Roads just for me to say, option three. That’s why car companies really like us. I can get into my car and say, ///apple.banana.spoon, and it goes, got it,” says Jones.
W3W is already being used in navigation systems for Ford and Jaguar Land Rover, and the company partnered with Mercedes-Benz for its China launch in April this year. The luxury automobile brand, which owns 10% of W3W, has built the addressing system into all of its A-class models. An important market for both companies, this launch signals their intent to refine the technology for Chinese speakers as the country’s car ownership continues to increase from the 300.3 million registered licenses already on the road (Ministry of Public Security).
“It was critical for us to bring this world-first to China as well, as we know our customers will see real value in this simple and most accurate voice navigation,” said Mercedes-Benz Cars Executive Vice President Sajjad Khan at the launch.
AutoSuggest, a feature in the W3W’s voice recognition software that helps drivers to identify and correct their mistakes, will be put to the test in cities such as Beijing, where street names can often sound similar. Improving the system’s AI-powered speech recognition abilities is a focus for the company, as is paving the way for smart city innovations.
The W3W team also views its product as a solution to the logistical obstacles faced by smart city technologies, since traditional addressing systems were designed during the pre-digitization era. Jones says that emerging markets, smart slums, and even developed cities are growing at such a pace that these addressing systems are struggling to stay up-to-date. He adds that a smarter system is required to meet the demand for new asset management, tourism, logistics, and mobility technology. The company’s objective is to become a global standard as a way to meet this demand.
“We’re about to launch five new Indian languages, which brings the number of people that we cover to over half of the world’s population,” says Jones. “Our aim is to cover the entire population, so everyone can use what3words in their native language.”
He is encouraged by W3W’s appearance in popular culture contexts, such as the system being used by a kidnap victim on the television show NCIS Los Angeles. There’s a craft beer called ///fear.movie.lions, which is the location of where the brewery is located in San Diego.
If things go according to plan for W3W, then Let’s meet at ///midwinter.hotspot.jacuzzi will soon sound perfectly normal.
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.