British firm what3words is hoping to tap into India’s burgeoning e-commerce industry by providing a service that makes addresses — and thereby delivery systems — much smarter. The West-London-based tech firm that focusses on creating accurate and easily identifiable addresses for the entire world was set up in 2013, and has divided the world into 57 trillion three-metre square chunks, including the oceans. Each is assigned a three-word address — for example, table chair spoon — that enables users to precisely identify locations. The company, which took part in the recent UK-India Tech summits in New Delhi and Bengaluru, already has a number of partnerships in India. For example, its addressing system is used by Bikxie motorbike service for women riders, and Pollinate Energy, a company that provides solar lighting to rural areas.
Co-founder and CEO Chris Sheldrick is hopeful of its prospects for growth in the market, given the constraints that uncertainty over addressing systems puts on the growth of e-commerce. “I think the immediate opportunity is for e-commerce logistics. E-commerce is booming, but one of the biggest pain points is being found in an efficient way — whether in an urban or rural setting,” he said at a recent meeting in London.
Sheldrick came to the idea of what3words working in the music industry, where finding the right entrance to a large venue proved a challenge, even in the UK, with its precise postal code system. While longitude and latitude could work for interactions that aren’t automated, it could prove cumbersome and costly if a mistake is made even in one digit.
He hopes that by keeping the system as simple and error-proof as possible, these issues could be avoided. (Places with similar words are located as far apart as possible to ensure that even if a typo did occur, it was likely to send alarm bells off in the user; the app also has an autocorrect function.)
It operates in 13 languages, but will be branching out to more, including Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and Telugu. Interestingly the words aren’t direct translations from English — simple words are kept for addresses in countries or regions where that language is spoken the most, while the larger words are kept for countries where little of that language is spoken.
what3words has created somewhat of a stir in the mapping world for being a closed proprietorial system that charges businesses (not consumers), like some postal systems across the world. It’s been adopted widely and is set to be used as an address system by Mongolia’s national postal system. Mongolia is a country with vast areas and often inaccurate addressing systems, regions with large nomadic populations, and -high levels of smartphone penetration. It was also very recently adopted by the Ivory Coast postal system.
“Any internal business process can send a latitude or longitude; we give value for a consumer to communicate that point to them. If we can help consumers and businesses talk to each other with what3words and the businesses can find them more easily, everyone has a better experience,” says Sheldrick. “You may be 800 metres from a destination point and unable to find it, and that can be incredibly infuriating.”