Diginomica | Technology for social good – what3words and international relief efforts

Chris Sheldrick, founder and chief executive of what3words, used to organise live music events, but became increasingly frustrated when both bands and equipment failed to turn up due to poor address information.

Providing them with GPS coordinates proved little better as people rarely remember long strings of digits and have a tendency to write them down incorrectly. But on speaking to a mathematician friend, Sheldrick realised that words might be a better bet – if a list of 40,000 words was used three times in different combinations, there were enough options to divide the entire world into trillions of squares.

Based on this idea, the next step was to create a system, a mobile phone app and an algorithm – and what3words was born. The app, which is only 12Mb in size, works by using the phone’s GPS service to locate where someone is based, before converting the coordinates into three easy-to-remember words.

The technology has so far been used in a range of situations such as helping to restore telecoms in Ecuador following the 2016 earthquake, which resulted in more than 26,000 people being relocated into shelters. It also enabled the Philippine Red Cross to coordinate aid distribution following Typhoon Haima later that same year.

But the system has also been employed by non-governmental organisations in non-disaster situations too. In Haiti, for example, IHS used the app to help specify where water pipes needed to be laid.

In Durban, South Africa, the Gateway Health Institute, which provides emergency support vehicles for people living in the townships, has trained unemployed children to find the three-word address of different homes.

They write the relevant words on a sticker, give it to the woman of the house and tell her to read it out to staff over her mobile phone if the family ever needs an ambulance.

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