Bands getting lost at music venues. That was the initial frustration for what3words founder Chris Sheldrick, who organised live music events all over the world.
On a mission to make things better
“Bands would turn up at the wrong venue, or simply not turn up at all,” explains the company’s CMO, Giles Rhys Jones. The solution? To provide a precise and simple way to direct people and talk about location, the business uses words instead of digits as a global addressing system, dividing the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigning each of these with a unique three-word address.
“ We are on a mission to make the world a more efficient, less frustrating and a safer place ”
So, why words? Well, three-word addresses are more memorable than long coordinates or alphanumerics, making them easier to communicate, particularly over the phone. They are also less prone to human error, offering the accuracy of GPS, with none of the complexity.
But the what3words application was far bigger than simply getting bands to gigs on time. The founders soon realised that the technology could help reach people in need and distribute aid in disaster situations.
When disasters wipe out buildings or landmarks in remote locations, it can be difficult to identify where help is needed. That means time wasted for emergency services trying to find people, which could lead to lives being lost, too.
what3words’ technology has already been used for many disaster relief situations. From restoring telecommunications in Ecuador after the earthquake in 2016 (where more than 26,000 people were relocated to shelters in the aftermath), to helping the Philippine Red Cross to coordinate aid distribution following Typhoon Haima in the same year.
“With three word addresses, ground crews can effectively communicate exactly where help is needed, either verbally or with a simple SMS message,” says Richard Juico Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross. “Our operations centre can then coordinate additional support, whether that’s dispatching ambulance crews or search and rescue teams, much faster and more efficiently.”
Spreading the word
The service is available for individuals and businesses to use in 14 languages meaning it can currently be used by over 3 billion people. But awareness is a major challenge, says Jones. “The more people who hear about us, the more people use the system to do good.”
The technology is available free for charities, increasing positive perception and reputation of the business, which in turn is making it more attractive to commercial partners.
And what3words has plenty of partnerships under its belt (more than 350, in fact) touching industries from logistics to tourism. Through its five National Postal Service partnerships – in the Ivory Coast, Djitouti, Mongolia, Tonga and St Maarten – around 25 million people have been given an address, many for the first time, for example. Meanwhile, it is also helping car brand Land Rover bring precise three-word addresses to its off-road driving smartphone app, ARDHI.
It is the responsibility of all business to put back into society, says Jones. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it has been proved to be good for business. People buy into companies with whom they have a shared belief and mission.”
Attracting favourable industry recognition
Over the last 18 months, what3words has featured in over 350 press stories all over the world, gaining favourable industry recognition and has been in receipt of several high profile awards, including Moonshot of the Year at the 2016 WIRED Audi Innovation Awards, Best British Startup at the 2016 Mobile World Congress and the Grand Prix for Innovation at the 2015 Cannes Lions.
Its humanitarian work also helps to attract and retain the very best talent, with people keen to work with the organisation to give something back. Supporting NGOs and charities provides the team – still small, with just 31 employees – with an important sense of giving that encourages them to work with them long term. A recent staff survey found that an impressive 100% of its employees feel more committed to the business as a result of its disaster response work.
This award is supported by the Department for International Development