Q&A with Chris Sheldrick of what3words

By on 3 February, 2021

Chris Sheldrick, CEO of what3words. Image provided.

This article was originally published in issue 109 of Position magazine.

In May 2020, an unusual phenomenon occurred.

A location service was splashed across Australian headlines, in the story of a bushwalker on Tasmania’s remote Flinders Island who had broken her leg in two places, and was rescued with hours with the help of a three-word phrase. The novel addressing system what3words has been quietly steaming ahead in the logistics and emergency response space. We sat down with CEO and co-founder Chris Sheldrick to find out more.

Position: Chris, the what3words system needs no elaborate introduction to our audience. I think the benefits of being able to position down to a 3m x 3m square anywhere on the globe speak for themselves. I’m interested in how it works – are the three words essentially a long passphrase allowing a unique identifier, while offering some mnemonic benefits to the user?

CS: Yes that’s essentially it, we have divided the world up into 3m squares – around 57 trillion squares in total, and we used a mathematical algorithm to assign each square a unique combination of 3 words. For example, the front entrance of our London HQ is ///filled.count.soap

what3words addresses are far easier to remember than street addresses and postcodes, or long alphanumeric strings or GPS coordinates, and they’re also easier to communicate accurately. The combinations of words have been allocated in a way that enables intelligent AutoSuggest technology to suggest possible results to the user based on their current location. This provides an extra layer of error detection and helps to correct input mistakes. What3words addresses are also designed for speech recognition technology, making them easy to input correctly into voice-enabled devices or vehicles.

Street addresses are often duplicated, even within one area: there are 14 Church Roads in London and 632 Juarez Streets in Mexico City! In contrast, what3words addresses are all unique, so there’s far less potential for confusion. The words are fixed, so they never have to be updated, meaning what3words can be used reliably offline, without a data connection.  It also means they never need to be updated when new buildings are built, or roads change.

Position: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of the system?

CS: I previously worked in the music industry, organising live events around the world. My team and I struggled with poor addressing a great deal as musicians and equipment often got lost trying to find events, and I soon realised that street addresses just weren’t good enough. I tried sharing GPS coordinates instead, but they were unreliable and difficult to use.

After experiencing too many navigation nightmares, I sat down with my mathematician friend to see if we could devise a way to communicate location that would be as precise as GPS coordinates, but easier for people to use. We realised that words could offer a more human solution, did the maths and what3words was born. Developing the final form of the algorithm took around six months.

Position: what3words made national headlines in Australia earlier this year, in the rescue of an injured bushwalker in a remote location on Flinders Island. I understand emergency agencies are some of the early adopters of the service. Were they a primary user when the system was designed? What advantages can the system offer to them over other positioning techniques?

CS: Within the UK, it’s definitely fair to say emergency services have been early adopters of what3words. It’s always been a use case we were keen to see from the outset, but we had to build trust in the community. They deal with life or death scenarios, and we’ve done a lot of listening and adapting of our tech to make sure it works the way they need it to – including an integration into the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems Sopra Steria and Capita which is used by many UK control rooms. We’ve seen gradual emergency services adoption in the UK over the last year and half, starting with a few pioneering services and, as word has spread, more and more services have come on board. Rescues making headlines like the Flinders Island case really help spread awareness and positive endorsement of our system, and today, what3words is used in 124 control rooms in the UK, Canada, USA, Australia, South Africa and Germany.

Having an easy way to communicate location is essential to providing an effective response in time-critical situations. what3words is more accurate than a street address, and much quicker to say over the phone to a call handler. It also covers areas where street addresses don’t exist – parks, beaches and remote hiking trails. In these places, callers will often only be able to give vague descriptive information such as ‘I passed a church 15 minutes ago’ or ‘I can see a lake in the distance’. Of course, prepared hikers may also be able to give a grid reference or GPS coordinates, but both are easy to mistake over the phone, especially in a stressful situation, and a mistake of just one number is hard to spot, and could then lead to rescuers going to the wrong location.

It’s of course worth noting that some services can now use Advanced Mobile Location (AML) to locate callers, and that’s a great solution in many circumstances. what3words supplements AML and other geolocation tools, offering another tool in the toolbox to be used by emergency services for times when AML isn’t possible; the caller may not currently be at the location where help is needed, for example, or they may have no SIM card in their device, making AML impossible to use. Another benefit of what3words is to provide an easy way to share exact locations between different services like police, fire, ambulance and mountain rescue, who may all need to collaborate when responding to a serious incident.

Position: What are the current trends in uptake of the service – can you describe some of the emerging use cases and the profiles of new entities who are relying on what3words?

CS: Staff and customer safety has been a key driver particularly for logistics partners, for whom accurate location information is critical to making safe and successful deliveries. Logistics operators are looking for innovative ways to increase volume of deliveries without sacrificing quality of service. what3words has seen a more than 1,000% increase in adoption of our technology into e-commerce checkout pages as businesses look to new technologies to help them to meet the increased demand for deliveries during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We’ve seen companies that already offer delivery adopting what3words as a way to increase efficiency, enabling them to better meet this high demand. We’ve also seen many SMEs who have never done deliveries before needing to adapt; suddenly they’re having to find customers’ homes, often without previous delivery experience. They’ve come to what3words for help and it’s apparent that better addressing enhances the customer experience, delivers business efficiency and drives growth.

Whilst GPS coordinates work well in GIS platforms, they aren’t human-friendly and complex reference systems can make GIS platforms difficult to understand and prone to user error. When customers provide their what3words address in an online checkout page for example, they’re essentially geocoding their location information into a standard format that is accurate to within 3 meters and easy to use. The universal nature of a what3words address provides a practical way to interpret complex data points and output them in a way that’s both easy to understand and practical to use. They can be used by the GIS expert and member of the public alike – from providing thousands of drop-off points for global logistics firms like DPD, to identifying the front door of a customer’s home for a food delivery or reporting the location of issues such as broken power lines or illegal fly tipping to a local council.

For logistics in industries such as construction, transport and utilities, what3words integration into platforms like ArcGIS Marketplace lets users search for and display the what3words address for any location – both individually and in large volumes.

Position: I recently heard that a nation-state has made what3words its national addressing system. Can you tell us who it is, and how that came about? What are the arrangements with the administration of that country? Why might they be better served by your system than others?

CS: In 2016, the Mongolian postal service was the first to officially adopt what3words. With its semi-nomadic population and sparsely populated landscape, Mongolia faces unique challenges when delivering post, especially as addressing is often reliant on landmarks and descriptions. We launched the Mongolian version of our app that same year,  and since then what3words has made a significant impact in this vast country. In 2019 the Trade and Development Bank (TBD) began using what3words addresses to help customers find the bank’s ATMs and branches as well as allowing customers to register for a bank account using their what3words address, granting better access to digital banking services to the many Mongolians living in remote and unaddressed areas. We’re also helping Mongolian businesses across e-commerce, tourism and many other sectors to optimise and drive social and economic development.

Position: Is there anything else you’d like to add, any future news you can let us in on?

CS: We’ve got some exciting projects on the go, particularly in the mobility and automotive spaces. Our 3WordGo app, for example, allows you to order an Uber by speaking what3words addresses to your Apple or Android watch. We’re also seeing increasingly significant brands using our tech to reach customers – this summer in London we’ve had beer brand Brewdog and burger chain Honest Burgers delivering to customers in parks using what3words addresses.

And individuals are using what3words in their communities too: running clubs, hiking, sailing, cycling, and more niche interests like birdwatching and geocaching. It’s been great to see people managing to get outside and meet safely using our tech, especially in recent months.

Position: Many thanks for your time today, Chris.

CS: Thank you!

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