What3Words

A London-based geocoding startup has developed a better way for e-hail drivers and riders to communicate with each other.

In the growing app-based world of ride-hailing, relying on a simple street address alone still has its limitations. Often enough, an Uber or Lyft driver has trouble locating a customer’s address on the app’s map, or there is a misunderstanding in communicating the exact pickup location. Waiting for a smartphone-hailed ride frequently involves a last-minute telephone call between the customer and driver to pinpoint the exact pickup spot.

A London-based geocoding startup, What3Words, has been developing a better way for drivers and customers to communicate with each other, to a high degree of precision. Instead of depending on street addresses, What3Words assigns three words to any three-by-three square meter (9.8 square feet) area on the world's map.

Here’s how it works: an algorithm assigns one of 57 trillion unique word-strings to traditional GPS coordinates, minimizes duplicates, and then generates versions of the code in nine different languages, with more to come. It’s something like a simplified alternative to GPS-generated locations.

A spot near the Empire State Building has the code “oven.likes.zips”. (What3Words)

The London car-sharing and minicab apps GoCarShare and Bounce have already integrated What3Words’ algorithm into their services. Their drivers can now locate customers waiting to be picked up with an accuracy of within 10 square feet, thanks to What3Word’s special geocoding system. Pre-programming drop-off locations becomes easier, too.

“With taxi services, the problem can be split up into two parts: the pickup and the drop-off,” says Chris Sheldrick, co-founder and CEO of What3Words.

Sheldrick says most ride-hailing services focus on the pickup. But the second part, the drop off, also needs optimization. “A lot of firms lose a lot of money in that final mile if the location hasn’t been specified,” he says.

Originally conceived to give people with non-traditional addresses in the developing world a way to receive mail and register for governmental services, What3Words’ word-based location service is now also solving first-world problems: getting a car to meet you exactly where you need it and, more generally, making it easier to indicate exactly where you are. The geocoding technology is available as a mobile app, on What3Words’ website, or as an API and SDK to allow third parties to integrate the tool into their own digital services.

For example, the What3Words geocoding system is also available on Navmii, a web-based crowdsourced map and navigator, among other maps services, and on real estate apps. The plan is to eventually roll out What3Words to e-commerce and delivery companies as well.

At its simplest, you can think about the potential of What3Words this way: On a recent warm spring day, Giles Rhys Jones, director of marketing at What3Words, was standing outside of a rehabbed factory-turned-conference center in Amsterdam. He was waiting for Sheldrick to meet him there. Except Rhys Jones was having trouble describing exactly where Sheldrick should meet him; Rhys Jones was standing outside one of the building’s many entrances. So he took out his phone and texted his three-word location to Sheldrick. Within minutes, Sheldrick found him.

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