Not hot air? Three words that could change how we travel

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Three years since launching, the hype around What3Words, an award-winning tech startup that promises to simplify world addressing, is gathering momentum. Pamela Whitby takes a look at the use case for travel

It’s a sweltering afternoon in East Africa and a group of British, German and American tourists have just enjoyed the experience of a hot air balloon safari ride over the Serengeti, and are now waiting in a wide expanse of veld for pick up. Darkness, which comes suddenly in Africa, is not far off and there are no nearby landmarks.

Yes, the pilot could send the GPS co-ordinates to the resort driver tasked with collecting the group. He could also, however, simply open the What3Words app to establish their exact whereabouts and hit the ‘locate me’ button. Voila! He would see three completely random words displayed immediately – for example, backfire.willed.spasm - which he could then communicate to the driver back at the resort via the app. However, if there is no data connection, the pilot could also send a message via WhatsApp or SMS, or via field radio if cell coverage is patchy. 

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“Because the system is an algorithm, it doesn't need a data connection to work,” explains Giles Rhys Jones, the chief marketing officer of What3Words.  “All the computing is done on the actual device, which just needs a GPS fix. On our app a compass will point to the three-word address that can be followed or we have a number of third-party apps that also have offline maps.”

Jones’ argument is that What3Words’ system is a 'user-friendly version of GPS'. Citing a 1957 Journal of Psychology study, he says that people’s ability to remember any combination of over ten random digits is zero while their ability to remember three words is close to perfect.

Longwinded GPS codes, he says, “are prone to error, when you when you take them down or try to share them. It’s a bit like communicating two sets of Wifi passwords every time you want to talk about some place somewhere.”

It was exactly this challenge that recently led the Tanzanian government to adopt the system. Here engineers are now using What3Words to locate the country’s 80,000 water pipes; previously they were given GPS coordinates but as many as 40% of these were said to be inaccurate. Other governments have also been wins for the addressing start up. In May last year, Mongolia, where 50% of people are nomadic, became the first country to adopt What3Words for its entire postal system. Six months on, West Africa’s Ivory Coast post office, where addressing is also a luxury, has too. And there are a growing number of other industries and organisations that are finding it useful. It is now technically possible for aid organisations; for example, to deliver medication and other supplies via drone to places where there is no physical address.

What exactly is What3Words?
Launched in 2013, the award-winning firm has divided the world up into 57-trillion three-square-metre blocks, which are each given a unique, pre-allocated, unchanging three-word geocode to solve the problem of inconsistent world addressing (a problem that currently affects approximately 135 countries or 75% of the world!). An important distinction here is that it an addressing system, not a navigation system. In other words, it’s a virtual point reference system that sits on top of mapping. Short words are distributed in places likely to be more commonly used, such as London, whereas in far-flung spots, the words are longer. Oh, and its already available in 13 different languages.


Targeting travel 

Needless to say there are a growing number of use cases for travel and tourism sector. After all, if today you can deliver penicillin via drone to an address-less location in a disaster struck area, why not pizza to a campsite in the Scottish Highlands? As a 2017 trends report from Baum & Whiteman International Food and Restaurant Consultants points out there is ‘lots of experimenting going on ...including Google-Chipotle at Virginia tech ... Domino's pizza drone in New Zealand…Amazon and the UK testing the feasibility of drone delivery’.

…if today you can deliver penicillin via drone to an address-less location in a disaster struck area, why not pizza to a campsite in the Scottish Highlands?

Richard Lewis, who was formerly chief executive of Best Western, has stepped into the role of Partnerships Director Travel and Tourism at What3Words. He says: “Everybody in travel today is talking about improving the ‘user experience’ and while this may be a bit of an overused phrase today, there really are a lot of opportunities here.”

Just helping the millions of travellers who get lost every year would be a good start; according to research from O2 travel, British travellers get lost for 22 million hours a year.  Lewis highlights a few other examples. The growing number of vacation rental customers are one - what if on the booking form you provided them with a three-word geocode to take the stress out of locating the exact front door of tucked away apartment? For the customer-focused hotelier, giving a guest the front door of hard-to-find restaurant or a keen golfer the location of the very first hole on the resort course are other loyalty-inducing possibilities.  

The list goes on and already there are a growing number travel and tourism organisations making use of the system. The tourism board of Ulaanbaatar, for example, has created a guide to the city using three-word addresses for key locations. In a similar way, the 2016 summer Olympics RioGo planning app integrated What3Words so that nobody got lost in the metropolis.

For navigation systems that need a more accurate virtual pinpoint it’s useful too. Multimodal transport app TripGo is using the system to give its users exact start and end points. And Navmii, a smart navigation and traffic app, used by 24-million people, is helping users discover, share and navigate to a three-word address directly from within the app.

From equipment drop-offs to giving sponsors their exact location, or delegates their meeting spot, in the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) space, currently worth $400bn to the travel industry, it is easy to see how the system could come in handy for organisers hosting huge events at places like London’s vast Excel Centre.

Tours, activities and festival organisers and more could benefit too and Glastonbury music festival, for one, is using What3Words so that visitors can easily find first aid, their mate’s tent or their car once the festival is over. “Everywhere at Glastonbury now has a three-word address,” says Lewis.

See more applications here.

For travel and tourism organisations, including hotels, the app is free to download; they sit on the one wing of what is in essence a butterfly business model. But it also works as a plug-in for businesses (on the other wing), via an API; this let firms enhance their own products and services with simple, precise addressing. Firms that stand to gain include delivery firms such as Deliveroo, logisitics outfits (Aramex, DHL, UPS), taxis (AfriCAB, Uber, Blacklane), postal services (as in the case of Mongolia/Ivory Coast) and so the list goes on. They incur a small charge each time the three-word address is used.

What3Words' main funding partner is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Aramex, a Dubai-based logistics and mailing company that ships to addresses across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Anything standing in it’s way? In reporting on the Ivory Coast postal service rollout, the BBC's Alex Duval Smith in Abidjan says “the success of What3Words will depend on the strength of the information campaign during the rollout, as under the system, a village name or a familiar landmark will become less important than a sequence of words chosen by a computer”.

Undoubtedly there will be more funding rounds ahead but with media outlets like the FT calling it one of the "one of the cleverest - and most easy to monetise - innovative technologies', this is a space to watch. In the mean time What3Words seems to be getting the information out there, and faster than you can jot down a GPS coordinate!

Main Image Courtesy: and Brandon Daniel

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