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The power of the three word address

(Image credit: Future)

Do you remember the news story a few years ago about a team of building society employees on a Christmas coach trip to France that wound up in neighbouring Belgium - seven hours away - after their driver's satnav got Lille the city confused with Lille the village, and no-one noticed? Similarly a class of school children ended up in the very un-historic residential street of Hampton Court in Islington, London, rather than Henry VIII’s Tudor stronghold, Hampton Court Palace. There are loads of examples of satnav mishaps which have caused travel chaos. Which is why What3Words, a London start-up, has created a new and exciting way of accurately pinpointing locations: thee word addresses.

The company has divided the entire world into a grid system comprising 57 trillion three metre by three metre squares. Each one has been assigned a three word address from a lexicon of 38,485 distinct English words. So Hampton Court Palace becomes hours.dimes.length whilst Hampton Court Islington is monks.employ.export. Two very different three word addresses which certainly goes a long way to reduce the scope for confusion around similar addresses.

Additionally, the algorithm that was built to assign each 3x3m square a three word address has been taught to ensure that any rude or potentially offensive acronyms or portmanteaus are avoided for instance big.ball.locks or you.are.fat. Additionally it ensures that any similar three word addresses are located far away from each other to avoid Hampton Court-like errors. So, for instance, if whilst on a road trip in the US you were trying to find Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (faces.olive.rooms), and by mistake you entered faces.olives.rooms or face.olives.rooms into your satnav it would very quickly become apparent that you’d entered the wrong address as the other two places are in Peterborough, Australia and Smithers, British Columbia, respectively.

So all well and good for hapless drivers blindly following satnav. But commercially what do three word addresses mean? Ultimately it is revolutionising how businesses find their customers or indeed how third sector organisations locate those needing their help. For instance in Tzaneen, South Africa, nearly half a million people people live in temporary structures located on dirt tracks in the semi-wilderness. For CHoICE Trust, a not-for profit that provides healthcare to the poor, trying to find patients can be incredibly difficult and much time is wasted looking for the right address. As a result family members often have to carry their sick relatives to the nearest main road in order for ambulances to pick them up. Three word addresses have changed this. The charity has provided each of their patients with their three word address and now when emergency medical assistance is required the doctors can quickly and easily find their patients by applying this new location technology.


Domino’s Pizza on the Caribbean Island of St Martin has also adopted the system for similar reasons. Often delivery instructions were vague such as turn left at the bar, go down the road for a bit and you’ll see a big house, turn right and keep going. Unsurprisingly this resulted in a lot of cold pizza and many frustrated customers. Similarly Lonely Planet, the travel book company, now prints a three word address for every location listed in its online and printed guide books. And automotive brand Daimler, which has bought a stake in the company, has added the technology to it navigation systems and aims to have it installed in all new cars by the end of next year. 

Mongolia is also proving to be a big fan with the post office, governmental services including the fire brigade and a retail bank all converting to three word addresses. This is where things start getting interesting - particularly in the EU. The Mongolian bank allows customers to register their three word address as their contact details rather than their ‘official address’ so this is entered into their customer file on the bank’s database. If the customer lived in the EU would this data be considered PII (personal identifiable information) or because it is essentially nonsensical is it anonymised? This is currently a bit of grey area. However, if (which is looking increasingly likely) three word addresses become a legitimate source of data for customer profiling purposes they will provide an incredibly powerful source of information which through the application of data science can be converted into predictive insights that can be applied to businesses and ultimately bolster the bottom line. For example it will be possible for marketers to more closely segment their customer base using more accurate and granular locations as a foundation layer. So why is some random place in Russia going to revolutionise marketing? Because data.drives.everything.

Now I’m off to buy a 3x3m plot of land near Coober Pedy, South Australia -, apparently.

Stuart Broughton, founder, Rubicon Insight

Stuart Broughton is the founder of Rubicon Insight a company that helps organisations get closer to their customers.