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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Illustration of a house with separate activities taking place in different rooms.
    POV

    The Case for Rooms

    It’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design.

  2. Car with Uber spray painted on it.
    Transportation

    The Dangerous Standoff Between Uber and Buenos Aires

    While Uber and Argentine officials argue over whether the company is an app or a transportation company, drivers suffer fines, violence, and instability.

  3. Life

    Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life

    Living close to public amenities—from parks to grocery stores—increases trust, decreases loneliness, and restores faith in local government.

  4. Tourists walk along the High Line in Manhattan, New York City
    Life

    The Beauty Premium: How Urban Beauty Affects Cities’ Economic Growth

    A study finds that the more beautiful a city is, the more successful it is at attracting jobs and new residents, including highly educated and affluent ones.

  5. A woman stands in a small, 1940s-era kitchen with white cabinets and a dining table.
    Design

    The Frankfurt Kitchen Changed How We Cook—and Live

    There are “dream kitchens,” and then there’s the Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926.