The startup what3words wants to change how we talk about location all over the world — three words at a time. Here is how it works and why big business in Germany is getting behind it.
You want to visit the Brandenburg Gate? No problem, just go to ///that.lands.winning. The ruins of Machu Picchu? That would be ///referred.grilled.folktales. Or would you rather go to the Taj Mahal? Then it is ///according.gloom.broads.
No, DW has not been hacked and no, there are (hopefully) no typos in this paragraph either. This is actually what the future of addressing might look like.
At least, that's what startup what3words is hoping to achieve. "We want ///word.word.word to be recognized on a business card, on the side of a building, in a travel guide or when you jump into a car and say it," its chief marketing officer Giles Rhys Jones told DW.
The London-based company divided the world into 57 trillion squares, each of them three meters wide. An algorithm arranged 40,000 English words into unique sets of three and assigned each to one square. So every place in the world can now be identified, unmistakably, by a three-word address that looks like the ones above.
"Traditional addressing doesn't actually cover everywhere that you maybe want to go. And even if it does, it's not particularly accurate," Rhys Jones explained. Others agree. The postal services of Mongolia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and five other nations have adopted the system. People on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten can order Domino's pizzas to three-word addresses. South African ambulances use it to potentially save lives by responding to emergencies quicker. And big corporations in Germany are also catching on.
Daimler invested into the startup and earlier this year announced it would offer three-word navigation in all of its cars by 2020. And this week logistics company DB Schenker, which operates in more than 130 countries, integrated what3words into their transport management system. Their customers can now place orders to three-word addresses, their truck drivers can use them to navigate.
Erik Wirsing, DB Schenker's vice president of innovation, is fascinated by the novel location service. So much so that he has put the three words leading to his front door into his private email signature. "I don't think the postman is able to handle this right now. But maybe he will be in the future," he said.
DB Schenker's parent company, Deutsche Bahn, invested venture capital into what3words almost two years ago. It caught Wirsing's eye. He saw how it could help in optimizing delivery processes, especially on the last mile that makes up a chunk of total transportation costs.
"In a big industry park you could circle the block three times before finding the right gate," he said. Pinpointing locations with what3words could save time — and ultimately money. "The more accurate the delivery point is, the more efficient your processes become, and the more you'll get done."
He went on to praise how user-friendly it was and how many benefits — think specifying exact landing spots for drone deliveries — could come out of such a brilliant yet simple idea. Maybe one that DB Schenker, with all its resources and logistics expertise, could have had themselves? "I wish I'd invented Google or Ebay, but unfortunately I was a bit too late," Wirsing said jokingly. "But I'm not bitter about it. I'm just happy this kind of solution exists nowadays."
And what3words is happy to provide it. Of course. How realistic its ultimate goal of becoming the "global standard for talking about location" actually is depends on how many people use it. "Obviously, a global leader like DB on board is great and undoubtedly will lead others to the platform," said Rhys Jones. Word-of-mouth is key.
What3words also spreads it through letting charities, NGOs and humanitarian organizations use the software for free or just a nominal fee. Among them is the Red Cross on the Philippines, which uses it to pinpoint locations in disaster zones and the UN, which lets people share localized data during humanitarian crises through an app.
Business partners, like DB Schenker, pay a licensing fee which generates revenues for what3words. The company founded in 2013 is not yet profitable. But the more people hear others refer to places like "///skis.closet.truly" (can you find out where that is?), the sooner that could change.
You can look up the three-word address of your house, your work or any other place in the world on what3words' website.