PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: Rethinking Addresses To Make Travel Easier And Safer
PSFK 2017 speaker and what3words CCO Clare Jones wants to change how the world thinks about postal addresses
For those of us who live in the U.S., our addresses aren’t something we tend to think about a whole lot. Just write the name of the place, some numbers, and like magic, your mail is delivered. But with more of us receiving packages than ever before (thanks, Amazon) perhaps it’s something that could use some rethinking. What’s more, in countries that don’t have extensive postal addressing systems, it makes the job of delivering goods all the more complicated and time-consuming.
Now imagine a different problem: you’re trying to find a buddy in Central Park, or at a large outdoor music festival. Traditional street addresses are virtually useless in this instance. UK-based what3words wants to solve both these problems to make package delivery—or simply finding someone—faster and easier. The company has created a grid of tiny 3 x 3-meter squares that spans the entire globe and has given each of those places a unique, three-word name. PSFK’s New York offices are located at “else.rush.button,” for instance.
We recently got the chance to interview Clare Jones, who leads global expansion for what3words and will be a keynote speaker at our PSFK 2017 conference. Jones got to tell us how what3words is shaking up a century-old institution, as well as the countries that are now incorporating 3-word addresses into their mail carrier services.
What’s wrong with addressing as we know it today? How is what3words improving that?
What3words is needed because around the world addressing just isn’t good enough. Inaccurate, confusing and inconsistent addresses are frustrating for people and expensive for businesses. It’s difficult to meet a friend in a festival crowd or find where a street food van is parked. It’s true if you’re a tourist who doesn’t speak Japanese trying to navigate via taxi to your Airbnb, or simply trying to work out to which Juarez Street in Mexico City you need to deliver a package (when there are 632 of them).
What3words is a really simple way to talk about any location. We have divided the world up into 57 trillion 10ft x 10ft squares and have given each one a 3-word address. 3-word addresses are being used in over 170 countries. It means everywhere and everyone now has a simple way to describe their location. We are also working on voice technology to allow people to specify accurately destination points for driverless cars and drones. Simply using three spoken words can route an autonomous vehicle to an exact parking space, entrance or drop-off point. And whether you’re asking a drone to deliver your pizza for a party on the beach or drop in vital medical supplies during a disaster, 3-word addresses are a simple and universal way to communicate location.
What3words seems to be a great solution for countries that are poorly addressed, but in countries that are already relatively well-addressed, is the goal to supplant traditional street addresses or to work with existing systems?
3-word addresses are not intended to replace existing addresses but add specificity when needed. Often when you look up an address in Google or Apple Maps, the pin will drop in the middle of a building (or sometimes in the middle of a building nearby). Traditional addressing systems don’t provide the accuracy we need, particularly with the rise of on-demand delivery and ridesharing services, where knowing the exact location of entrances and exits can save companies millions.
In a recent test in London, which is one of the best addresses cities in the world, a delivery company, QuiQup, found that on average drivers spent around 10 minutes in total on each delivery finding the pick-up and drop-off locations using traditional addresses, and just 4 minutes on average while using 3-word addresses. Addressing systems have barely changed in the past hundred years, but here is an opportunity—particularly as we look to the voice technology and autonomous systems of the future—for a fit-for-purpose addressing system that works globally.
Do you view Google Maps as a rival, or is there some potential for collaboration in the future?
Our technology provides a grid that can be layered on top of any map—it simply converts coordinates to 3-word addresses, and vice versa. Many of our customers use Google Maps and add 3-word address functionality on top—we view all map providers as collaborators, not competitors. 3-word addresses provide the accuracy needed for accurate routing and destination planning.
TripGo, for example, is a multi-modal transit app that enables people to route to and from 3 word addresses—so I could route from cakes.tower.punk in North Cove Harbor to noise.cubs.tooth, an exact 3m x 3m square in Central Park, using an Uber, buses, trains, walking, bike-sharing—whichever modes of transport I prefer. The team at TripGo have simply added what3words technology to their existing mapping and routing technology to enable a better user experience.
We’re also working now with some automotive companies around the world—soon you will be able to get into a car and use its built-in voice control to say “Take me to index.home.raft”, and the car will know exactly where it is going.
Are there any plans in the future to make what3words an open standard?
Addressing is a key piece of infrastructure, and can tackle huge economic and social problems. Building a global, multilingual address system takes a lot of resources and money to create and maintain. We have developed a business model that works for everybody. what3words is not open source and our focus is on having the right commercial solutions for different users: the system is free to use for people, while companies that use the service to commercially benefit pay a fee. This approach ensures both the scalability and sustainability of the what3words solution.
Our solution can also outlast our company because our offline tools work regardless of whether our company exists or our own technical infrastructure is down or not. We have a range of provisions, including escrow, so that governments and organizations that integrate what3words can be confident in the long-term viability of the technology.
Mongolia was the first country in the world to adopt what3words for its postal delivery. How has that been going thus far?
It’s been fascinating to see how the postal service adopting a technology as a pioneer in the country has seen uses in so many other ways—from Pizza Hut using 3-word addresses to deliver hotter pizza to the tourist organization of Ulaanbaatar helping tourists find locations of traditional Ger camps. You can use a 3-word address in Ulaanbaatar to order a taxi, go on an off-road adventure, or find local nightlife.
Microfinance provider AREC has used what3words to help locate clients in the maze of traditional houses in the slum districts of Ulaanbaatar. And, of course, it means people can get their mail easily—just last week, an 80-year-old received her first ever letter, delivered by the Mongol Post, using her 3-word address. A challenge for us has been ensuring a local approach, given the unique situation of the country—but we have been very pleased to hire in the last few weeks the first few members of our local Mongolian team.
You lead global expansion. Apart from language, are there any unique concerns what3words deals with in each country?
Absolutely, each country is so unique—but that’s half the fun of doing this. It’s so interesting to see how differently people engage with our technology and how ready we have to be to respond. For example, we recently saw a spike in usage in Saudi Arabia where we couldn’t pin down the source until we discovered someone had sent a WhatsApp message that had gone viral, with people texting their friends to encourage them to discover and share their 3-word addresses. We see travelers using what3words through free offline satnav app Navmii as they explore the world, whereas in Germany, our recent partnership with rail and transport company Deutsche Bahn stoked big interest from German consumers and business in is using what3words.
People behave so differently and use our tech for such diverse reasons all around the world, whether it’s ordering a medical delivery to a hospital campus in California with couriers like Onibag, coordinating hurricane response in Haiti with IHS, or getting a drone to deliver groceries with GoPato. The fact that our apps are free and we have an open API so developers can build the things that are right for them means we’re able to be a global company despite the fact that there are just 35 of us based in the London HQ.
How did you first get involved with what3words? What drew you to the company?
When I met co-founders Chris Sheldrick and Jack Waley-Cohen, I was amazed by the elegance of the idea and its potential for growth. And then you add to this the huge power for social and economic development. We take for granted in countries with consistent addresses that we can call an ambulance or tell a midwife where we live, that we will be able to register to vote, or for a bank account or simply to receive things online. For me, it was the perfect blend: a world-changing idea, with a clear social mission.
With your interest in social enterprise, do you have any advice for startups who want to affect change while still running a successful business? What lessons have you learned at what3words?
One of the key pieces of advice would be to surround yourself with investors and advisors who believe in your vision and mission. We have been really lucky on our journey to have world-renowned investors and companies such as Intel Capital, Horizons Ventures, Aramex, and Deutsche Bahn, to help us as we grow—and we have had investment from others, such as Mustard Seed, who are focused on social and environmental impact through business. It has meant we can focus on growing both our business and our social impact.
Clare Jones leads the global expansion of what3words. Her background is in the development and growth of social enterprises, including in impact investing. She is interested in the power of innovative business to change the world and sits on the board of various UK social enterprises. She studied for an undergraduate degree in English, with her graduate degree in the Geography Department at the University of Cambridge. Clare also volunteers with the Streetlink project, doing health outreach work with street-based sex workers in London.