News & Views

Interview / what3words

by Contagious Team
Contagious caught up with Cannes Lions Innovation Grand Prix winner and marketing director of what3words Giles Rhys-Jones, to hear more about the addressing system's ambitious plans

Can you introduce what3words?

We’ve come up with a new global addressing system. It’s like a global postcode which is much better and much more accurate. We’ve cut the world into three meter squares and given each of these three metre squares a three word address. There’s 57 trillion squares in the world. It basically means that everybody and everything everywhere has got an address – an easy way to refer to location.

What do you think helped what3words claim the Innovation Grand Prix at Cannes Lions last month?

I’m an ad guy, I’ve been to Cannes a few times and won some stuff there previously. I saw they had this new category and I read the rules very carefully and I thought this is not communications-based ideas, it’s a concept, it’s a product, a patentable idea that they were rewarding. Obviously I used many of the things that I learnt at Ogilvy to craft the story in such a way that it was appealing to that sort of audience. But what we’re doing at the moment is appealing to everybody, whether they’re governments, or healthcare or delivery organisations. I think it's the fact that we’re unashamedly on a mission to change the world. We’ve got massive ambitions, we think we can make the world a better place and we think we’ve got a really simple solution that is cheap and easy to implement. 

Why is there such a need for this kind of system?

In the UK you say ‘I’ve got a street address and that’s good enough.’ And yes, in many circumstances it is, but 75% of the rest of the world doesn’t have that luxury. Where they do have systems they’re not maintained, they don’t have street numbers, house names, it’s not sequential. The only alteration out there globally is latitude and longitude and that is 18 digits, computers love them and people don’t. It’s also prone to errors – if you flip two numbers and don’t realise you could go five miles in the wrong direction, or, even worse, you don’t realise until you’re there.

We see this with water points in Tanzania – engineers travel to fix a water point and it’s not there because someone took the location down wrong. 40% of the water points tagged by the World Bank in Tanzania are wrong and there’s 80,000 of them. That is depriving whole communities with water, which is dangerous and wrong.

The other alternative is to put in a traditional street addressing system, but that takes decades and is constantly changing so it costs tens of millions to put in and then millions to keep going. It would usually be a government that bears that cost, but it’s difficult to recoup and takes way too long. Ghana has put in four addressing systems so far, because they did a pilot, and that didn’t work work so they launched another system. You have houses with four addresses on the side. So what do you tell your kid’s school or your health worker is your address? They’re not consistent across the country at all and it’s only for that country. Then, again, to implement things like aid and disease management it’s really really challenging. When a natural disaster hits it wipes out all the landmarks that they used to have, people say things like ‘the third house past where the old mango tree used to be.’ It takes a person who’s lived there for many years to remember those kind of landmarks, it becomes a very difficult system.

Can you tell us a bit more about what3word's solution?

We’ve come up with a system that’s really simple, we’ve got an app, but more importantly we’ve got an API and an SDK. That is being plugged into other businesses, so they can use it for three word addresses. Individual users are free, you can use our app for free, so if you wanted to specify the exact front entrance to this place it would be fool.brick.rock, and you can send it to someone, it would come through as a short code which they click on, it will open in a browser, our app, or any of the navigation apps that you currently have. Then you have a bunch of other apps that will also accept three word addresses. Navii is a navigation app that has 25 million users around the world, and you can specify a three word addresses and it will navigate you there. 

We also have an offline version which means that as soon as you’ve got this app you’ve got all 57 trillion addresses times the nine languages we’ve got live so far.

Do you charge for the service?

We’re charging corporates, big businesses, people that can make or save money through using our API or our app, we’re charging every time they flip the three words back into a lat/long to go there. They sign a licence with us and we can track how many calls they make, and over certain thresholds, that’s when charges apply.

What kind of businesses are you working with?

We’re targeting four groups of businesses:
Groups for whom we can fundamentally improve customer experience – travel, navigation, tourism, sport, those sorts of things. Adding a three word address to a hotel listing or tourist destination makes it all of a sudden a very easy place to find.

Next, we’ve got businesses for whom we can fundamentally offer efficiences: delivery, post, logistics.

Then we’ve got growth businesses – it’s very difficult to grow e-commerce, or banking or microfinance if you haven’t got an addressing infrastructure behind it. Nigeria is the fastest growing e-commerce country in the world at the moment, but has a very very poor addressing infrastructure, which is hampering its growth. You rely on lots and lots of delivery people and more expensive local people who know the routes, but even then it’s very difficult to plan out routes and it takes hours and hours to deliver something that should take minutes, it could be much more efficient.

We’ve got a delivery company in the favelas in Brasil who is using us, allocating people three Portugese words, sticking them on their door, so next time they order stuff they put in that as part of their address, it gets delivered to the office and then people make the deliveries. It’s a cooperative which one man has started, and now he’s talking to other e-commerce retailers. They’re emerging middle classes, if not middle classes in those sorts of places. They have many things, but they don’t have an address, which means they don’t have rights, can’t get aid and can’t get deliveries.

The fourth one is around improving lives. Governments, aid organisations, NGOs, Charities, for example we’re doing a project in Tanzania addressing water points with the World Bank. Currently engineers travel to fix a water point and it’s not there because someone took its location down wrong. 40% of the water points tagged by the World Bank in Tanzinia are wrong and there’s 80,000 of them. That is depriving whole communities with water, which is dangerous. 

We’re small but we’re in the process of getting quite big projects on board and documenting those projects so we can send those out and say look at the power of this thing.