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Internet's Future 27 July 2018

Future Thinking: what3words on IP Addresses for the “Real” World

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In July 2018, we interviewed Giles Rhys Jones to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet.

Giles Rhys Jones is the chief marketing officer at what3words, which has developed an algorithm to convert complex GPS coordinates into unique and memorable three-word addresses; thus becoming the geographical equivalent of an IP address. In doing so, the company is helping to provide addresses to the more than 75% of the world, which still suffers from poor or non-existent addressing, meaning they struggle to open bank accounts, register births, or access basic services like water and electricity. By better or more simply mapping locations, W3W supports social mobility, growth, and development.

The Internet Society: W3W has divided the world into a grid of three-by-three meters and has assigned each square a unique three-word, rather than numbered, address. Where would the Internet Society’s address in Reston, Virginia be if we were to adopt the W3W system?

Giles Rhys Jones: The Internet Society’s front door in Reston is at the W3W address “cone.courier.stuff”. [Other readers can easily check their addresses too.] 

Why do we need better location referencing?

W3W was specifically developed because so many parts of the world don’t have addresses. Even in the best-addressed countries in the world, like the UK or Germany, postcodes tend to cover large areas and it can be quite difficult to find a home or business. If, for example, I want to meet someone in a park, or if I have an accident on a hillside, it’s very difficult to specify exactly where I am. So it would also be difficult for, say, emergency services to quickly reach me in case of an accident. We therefore devised the W3W system to be a user-friendly version of GPS (global positioning system) coordinates. GPS, which consists of latitudes and longitudes, is very accurate, but difficult to use. W3W is basically a simple, user-friendly version of GPS coordinates. People can share their W3W address more quickly, more accurately, and with less ambiguity than any other system.

What are the benefits to, for instance, someone who lives on a farm in rural Uganda, like one of our June 2018 Internet Futures interviewees?

If a farmer in rural Uganda wants to specify a pick-up point for produce, or a specific area or part of a field which has a disease, or the exit and entry point to a field, they can do so by simply using three words, often even in their own language. All over the UK, for example, farmers are already using the system to enable them to be more precise about locations on their farmland. Elsewhere, W3W is also being used by police, emergency services, and disaster response teams. It’s been used, for example, to deliver time-sensitive medicine to a specific location in a large hospital when such hospital covers a substantial area but only has one generic address. Besides more specific locations, another benefit of W3W is that it’s addresses are fixed: even if new houses are built, or phones go down, or a disaster hits, no postal address needs to be updated. It still works.

How does W3W as a five-year-old company compete in a tech landscape seemingly dominated by a few tech giants, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon?

W3W doesn’t consider itself a competitor of these companies. The beauty of our solution is that it’s based on code even if we also have an app and a website which enables individuals to use it. Companies are licensing our services and using it to build their own apps. While there are, for example, a number of navigation apps that compete with Google maps, for instance, many of them have purchased a W3W licence and built it into their systems.

In an Internet economy sometimes known for anti-competitive trends, are you concerned about W3W’s concept being copied by competitors?

Our system is pretty complex: even just dividing the world into squares was quite complicated. And then we have teams of linguists who have to consider and test all of the words we use. In addition to these technical parameters and investments, we’ve also had patents granted to protect some of the components of our system. If someone was to try to copy it, there would be legal ramifications.

W3W addresses are available in a range of languages. Can you tell us why you’ve opted to expand beyond English as a primary language?

We believe that everyone should be able to talk about anywhere on the planet in their own language. W3W is already available in 26 languages, and plan to roll out three more later this year. A variety of factors dictate our choice of language, including our business partners, government partners, and the size of relevant populations. This is primarily a business prerogative, but we’re simultaneously changing lives. For the same reason we’ve offered our services to NGOs and intergovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross and UN for free or at a low cost.

How are you ensuring that your services are accessible to all? 

The W3W concept has already proven particularly useful for people with disabilities. BlindSquare, for instance, uses our code to enable blind people and people with visual impairments to navigate better. The app describes environments, notifies users of point of interests, and generally helps people travel more independently. We’ve also been involved in other applications and solutions specifically designed to help people with limited mobility and visual or hearing disabilities, for example.

With the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, distance and location appear to be mattering less, with people at opposite ends of the globe being connected at the click of a button. Do you think location and place matter less or more as Internet coverage expands?

On one hand, we’re becoming more globalised. You can be connected to people thousands of miles away, and can work from anywhere. But on the other hand it’s rather ridiculous that we somehow still have to stand on a street corner and wave down an Uber to tell them which way to go. And this is an issue in most developed countries.

In more developing contexts, we believe you need three things for development: to be connected, to be banked, and to have an address.  Without an address, you can’t vote, you can’t get aid, and it’s difficult to get a bank account.

For example, W3W is now being used in Liberia to manage microfinance in some of the informal settlements. Before our partnership, many people had to draw pictures to describe their addresses. We believe an address really enables people to take a first step on the social and economic development ladder.

For this reason, we believe it’s become ever more important to have an accurate access. And street addressing is woefully inadequate for the way we live today – whether you live in London or in Durban.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet? What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

The Internet economy is facing an exciting time: in a way it’s made it easy to start a business, to grow, to be connected. A number of things limit that growth, and we believe an address is one of those things. In some of the African countries we operate in, there is limited opportunity to scale e-commerce, for example, as you can’t physically deliver to people. This limits growth and the potential we have.

But dominant platforms like Google and Facebook  were also startups too. We are pretty ambitious; we want to become a global standard. We want people to see “word.word.word” and immediately recognise it as an address. We want W3W addresses on business cards, for instance. That is our objective.

How do we ensure that the Internet of the future creates opportunity and empowers people? Explore the 2017 Internet Society Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future and read the recommendations to ensure that humanity remains at the center of tomorrow’s Internet.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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