Co-founder of what3words and Design Indaba 2017 speaker, Chris Sheldrick chats to us about his revolutionary app that is changing the way we address the world, one 3 metre square at a time…

Please tell us a bit about your background?

My background has always been in music. My education was music, my life was in music. I played the clarinet, bassoon and piano, and I graduated with a music degree from King’s College London and London’s Royal Academy of Music.

I also suffered from severe sleepwalking and one night, when staying at a friend’s house, I punched through a window, severing eight tendons, a nerve and an artery in my left arm. Unfortunately the accident spelled the end of any career as a performer.

I stayed in the industry and started a company that organiSed live music events around the world. It was here that I really saw the challenges of poor addressing.

What is what3words?

what3words is a simple way to talk about any location. We have given every 3mx3m square on the planet a fixed and unique 3 word address, using dictionary words. So by saying table.chair.spoon that points to a specific 3 metre square in the world. We are in English and 13 other languages with more to come.

It means that everyone and everywhere now has a simple and usable address. We have our own apps and with our code, business are creating an ecosystem that accept 3 word addresses for a multitude of uses. For example, you can use us with many delivery companies, navigation apps, and taxi companies.

Elle Deco SA - Chris Sheldrick

How did you come up with the idea of what3words and why did you think there would be a demand?

Having spent 10 years organising live music events around the world I faced the frustrations that came with poor addressing on a daily basis. When street addresses were not good enough I tried getting everyone to use latitude and longitude (GPS coordinates), but they was very prone to error and caused enormous confusion. Seeing guests, bands, singers and equipment strewn across various hillsides in Rome at a prestigious wedding was a particularly low point.

Over a cup of tea with a mathematician friend, I shared my frustration with GPS coordinates and strived to find a way of naming everywhere in the world that would be incredibly easy for people. We worked out that a list of 40,000 words was enough to give every 3m x 3m on the planet its own unique 3 word address. We subsequently wrote an early version of the what3words algorithm on the back on an envelope.

Why does the world need it?

The world is actually very poorly addressed and talking about precise locations is difficult. If you are a logistics firm, a photographer, a postal service, a food delivery company or you are in the travel or navigation business, a simple way to talk about location is pretty important to you. Location is at the heart of business decisions and a number of future technological shifts. And if you want to meet a friend at a festival or park, a simple way to communicate it is essential.

The UPU states that over 75% of the countries in the world either have a poorly maintained addressing system or no street addressing system at all. In the 25% of the world with well-maintained systems there are many times when street addressing just doesn’t work or is not accurate enough. Street addressing takes decades to implement and costs millions, and even then is often inadequate. Whilst coordinates and alphanumeric systems can be precise, they are prone to errors in transcription and communication and are rarely used in everyday life.

We are not aiming to replace street addressing, but be a useful addition when street addresses are not accurate enough, and be an instant, scalable solution where they don’t exist.

Who is your target customer?

We brand the early adopters of the what3words system as ambitious innovators; these are people who think differently and see the possibilities that our unique approach brings. And they don’t get phased by the fact that they might have the word “cabbage” in an address! Better and easy-to-communicate addresses can improve customer experience for mapping, navigation, travel and sports businesses, can drive efficiencies for delivery and logistics companies and improve lives with the help of NGOs and aid organisations.

Elle Deco SA - Chris Sheldrick

What sets your business apart from the rest?

There are a number of systems out there but everyone else has solved the problem in exactly the same way. People have reduced coordinates into alphanumeric codes, but these comprise of far too many characters to be realistically usable. Replacing 16 numbers with a combination of 9 numbers and letters just wasn’t a proper solution in our eyes and are near impossible to remember. A person’s ability to retain 3 words in short term memory is almost perfect. Anyone can get their head around 3 words.

Where and how are people using it?

We are being used in over 170 countries by individuals, business and NGOs. We have signed a partnership agreement with five national postal services including La Poste Cote d’Ivoire & Tonga Post. We were used at Glastonbury, Farnborough Air Show and at Burning Man festivals. We were also used to coordinate filming and set locations on Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” production. We were used at the SuperBowl50, the Rio Olympics and at the World Humanitarian Summit to coordinate security. We are being used by pizza delivery companies in Mongolia and St Maarten and are being built into autonomous vehicles and drone delivery systems. People are using it everyday to just meet friends, remember where they parked the car or find the entrance to the Airbnb they are staying in. We were even used in an episode of Michael Bay’s The Last Ship TV show by the bad guys trying to hide their location from the US Navy with a 3 word code.

Please tell us more about your partnership with Gateway Health and the work you’ve done in Durban

Gateway Health Institute provides healthcare and community services in disadvantaged areas across South Africa. They run programs to deliver medicine, supply emergency transport for women in labour, and identify hot spots for human rights abuses. However, many of these programs struggle due to the lack of reliable addressing.

Gateway has begun piloting the use of 3 word addresses in KwaNdengezi, a poor informal settlement on the outskirts of Durban. A key part of the project is training unemployed young people who live in the settlement to search for a 3 word address via the free what3words app, and provide it to residents.

Following this simple training, they take what they have learned out to the homes in the settlement. Here, they help residents locate and record the unique 3 word address of their own property, with both a paper copy and, optionally, a digital registration in a database. The database uses USSD technology – an easy to use technology that works on any kind of mobile phone and does not require internet. It enables even more rapid response when requesting emergency services or reporting service delivery failures.

Even if residents do not have a smartphone, they can simply refer to this 3 word address – which never changes – when they need to communicate their location. They are also advised to keep a copy of their unique 3 word address in a safe place. Many expectant mothers, for example, choose to keep it in a bible – a place that’s not only easy to access in an emergency but also one they’ll never lose. We are also producing physical house signs for the township.

Once a home has a 3 word address, its residents can share the location accurately and reliably. Medical services can identify where pregnant women live and provide them with essential pre-natal care. Should any complications occur during labour, ambulance crews also know exactly where to go, to provide life-saving assistance.

In addition to addressing homes in the settlement, Gateway Health is also leading a project to identify the 3 word addresses of critical community assets – including local government centers, medical facilities and clean water pumps.

Once complete, it will help to build a detailed community map, so that residents, businesses and organisations can continue to use 3 word addresses to greatly improve their standard of living.

What is the most important thing our readers should know about what3words?

They can use it immediately and for free.

Top 3 tips for people starting a business today?

We’ve learned that execution is key regardless of whether you have a disruptive idea or not. The more disruptive the idea, the more people will seek credibility that the idea is being put to good use and being used by businesses and consumers. It’s essential to focus all your time on the ambitious innovators who want to be the first movers in their field, and leave those who need external validation for later. It’s essential to have a physical presence even though you have a digital product. We attend a large number of industry events and ensure we’re talked about. Each new integration is noticed and people want to be associated with the company that is changing the industry.
Elle Deco SA - Chris Sheldrick

Images courtesy of Design Indaba


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The 2017 Field Report is not about fleeting trends – its about quality and perfection, about bringing back traditional skills and craftsmanship. We speak to the visionaries, icons and experts who shape their unique, lasting and life-enhancing concepts for us to embrace through their designs, recipes, buildings and explorations. Pick up your copy today and tell us what you think on Twitter @Elle_Deco using #2017FieldReport.