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Never get lost again

When was the last time you got lost? Throughout my years of travel, I have spent hours struggling to find my way out of Shinjuku station in Tokyo, been unintentionally driven into the desert by a non-English speaking taxi driver in Marrakech, pounded endless dark roads in Beijing in search of my hotel, and have nearly been robbed by street kids in Paris when wandering into the wrong arrondissement.

Research from O2 Travel has suggested UK tourists spend an average of 22 million hours lost abroad each year. And it’s not just vacationers – even well organized, smartphone-wielding business travelers have this problem. You might not have an Internet connection to check your whereabouts; your driver can’t read the address you have given him; you can’t decipher the street signs – if they exist at all; you’re trying not to draw attention to yourself by looking at a map; or the route you have been given is wrong. It’s stressful, time consuming and can leave you vulnerable.

It can also equate to inefficiency and a loss of earnings on a grand scale. Think about delivery companies such as UPS, which supply their drivers with trucks without doors to save them a few extra seconds. When a drop-off location is hard to find, fewer parcels can be signed for in a day.

In 2013, UPS started using computer platform Orion to show optimal routings for the average 120 daily deliveries each of its drivers has to perform on a possible 55,000 US routes. The algorithm, running at 1,000 pages long, is expected to save the company $300 to $400 million a year when fully up and running in 2017. A saving of one mile a day per driver would mean UPS would be $50 million a year better off.

Streets with No Name

For consumers, satnavs and navigation apps from Google Maps, Sygic and Waze do a similar job to Orion, helping drivers get around cities and providing real-time alerts for traffic jams and accidents.

The eyes in the sky have delivered us aerial footage of every inch of our planet – Google Earth allows us to fly through 3D-rendered metropolises, between canyons and over oceans, while Google Street View has seamlessly stitched together stills of cities in more than 65 countries. The Internet giant’s Cardboard project also lets you experience 360-degree panoramas in 3D.

However, what’s been missing from all this is a hyper-specific address system. The UK may be one of the best-addressed countries in the world but more than six million deliveries a year have a problem reaching their addressee. This perplexing situation is far much worse for the four billion people across the globe who don’t have a legitimate physical address at all – creating an endless nightmare of problems when it comes to simply opening a bank account, registering for benefits, getting online, voting or setting up a business.

These aren’t just Syrian refugees, Mongolian nomads and Brazilian slum dwellers – the address system in Tokyo, for example, is opaque and imprecise. Most streets in Japan have no names so you have to rely on the building number.

In the UAE, cities are developing so fast that even locals don’t know where things are. To combat the problem, Dubai began introducing “geo-addresses” of ten-digit GPS coordinates for every building in the emirate, and earlier this year a new geographic address system started to be implemented. “People should know which district they live in and where they are going, and that will be easier with the district names written on street name signboards,” said Traffic Director Hussain Al Banna of the Roads and Transport Authority in a report. It seems so obvious.

Much of the rural United States has no address system at all, as described in a 2013 article on West Virginia in The Atlantic. In McDowell County, “residents picked up their mail at the post office    and had Amazon packages delivered to city hall or the bank. Directions were proffered in paragraphs; landmarks such as ‘the stone church,’ ‘the old sewing factory’… functioned as de facto street signs.”  If you needed to call an ambulance or the fire brigade, people had to stay on the phone and tell the operator if they could hear the sirens getting louder, the writer reported.

It was only three years ago that things started to change, at least in this state. Telecom company Verizon agreed to invest $15 million in “one of the most ambitious mapping projects in recent decades,” working with the local population to create hundreds of thousands of formal addresses. Already home to the small town of Cucumber, West Virginia is now home to Beer Can Alley and Cougar Lane.

Three Little Words

As frequent flyers, we’re pretty adaptable, being armed with the necessary experience, technology and on-the-ground assistance to navigate the world’s most daunting cities. However, as we all know, even if we have a driver or are in a familiar destination, the process of navigation isn’t always as simple as it should be.

I recently tried to order an Uber in Miami, but its seemingly logical grid system wouldn’t allow me to get to Little Havana because I couldn’t type in the intersection I wanted. On top of this, my driver spoke no English and didn’t know the area. With roads miles long, you need an exact address (for example, 3501 SW 8th) to get anywhere. After driving fruitlessly for 20 minutes, I finally made him stop the car. Sometimes travel can make us feel stupid.

One UK start-up, however, is on its way to changing the world. Launched in 2013, What3Words has designed an algorithm that has divided the planet into 57 trillion 3-square-meter sections, and then assigned each plot a unique three-word address. For instance, if you want to visit the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, instead of inputting its long GPS code (N63° 52’ 51.646” W22° 26’ 27.985”) into your satnav, you could simply select “richer.jades.apologies” on the app’s map to receive driving directions.

“The geospatial industry is worth more than $150 billion, and has trillions of dollars worth of industry associated with it,” says Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer of What3Words. “However, there is no simple way to talk about location consistently and globally – there are 135 countries in the world that don’t have a good street addressing system. All you have instead is latitude and longitude. It’s incredibly accurate but it’s 18 digits long, so it’s impossible to remember and prone to error when telling others.”

You can use these three-word geocodes to isolate an equipment drop at a convention center; locate a hard-to-find restaurant or Airbnb apartment in Bangkok; find an unaddressed office in Abu Dhabi or a community center in a South African township; book a drone delivery to a construction site in Paris; or alert authorities to houses in Nepal hit by an earthquake. (People on the ground can share virtual pin drops for buildings that have collapsed.)

“We worked that out with a list of 40,000 words in the English language; forty-thousand times 40,000 times 40,000 equals 64 trillion, so that gives you enough to do every single square,” Rhys Jones says.  “We’ve taken out homophones, very long words, hyphenated words and rude words, and distributed shorter words in places that are going to be more commonly used, such as in central London.”

Expanding Horizons

Already available in ten languages, with more on the way, What3Words has so far partnered with more than 50 organizations, including the UN and Hg2 travel guides, to radically transform and simplify everything from e-commerce and aid deliveries to helicopter landing points.

Rhys Jones says: “In Brazilian favelas, millions of people are putting stickers on their houses with their three-word address so Carteiro Amigo can deliver post, and in Tanzania we are being used by the Red Cross to flag up water points contaminated by cholera.” He adds: “Our intention is to be a globally recognized way to talk about location: word.word.word.”

World travel organizations that have so far employed the revolutionary What3Words geo-address app include the Independent Map Company (IDMC), which is a platform for unknown or hidden shops, bars and restaurants (visit supporter.spare.hood for Prohibition-era cocktails in Liverpool), and transit app Tripgo, which provides step-by-step routings to pin-drop locations for cyclists, pedestrians and people using public transport.

Another geo-location tool is driving navigation app Navmii. Used by more than 24 million people, its maps for 190 countries can be used offline and are being built into in-car systems. Grocery deliveries from Ocado are also powered by Navmii.

“We don’t have the resources of Google, of being able to hire vehicles with cameras on the roofs,” explains Zoe Laycock, Navmii’s chief marketing officer. “We wanted to build mapping and local information through crowdsourcing. GPS ‘trace data’ [showing routes that have been driven] is one of the ways we do this, but we also encourage people to get involved through the Open Street Map initiative [] – London is a good example of a place where maps are very accurate but in terms of traffic management, speed limits and one-way systems, that can change, and we need users to report these things in real time.”

Navmii is also working on “last mile” navigation, Laycock says. “What you can’t do yet is pinpoint a multistory car park that has spaces available. Over the coming months we will be working directly with NCP, for example, to provide that data so you know how many spaces there are free on each floor.” Soon you won’t have any excuse for being late for a meeting because you couldn’t find parking.

A Short History of Navigation

In the Age of Discovery of the 15th to 18th centuries, explorers employed latitude for north-south measurements, taking the equator (0 degrees) as its base point. With the angle measured from the center of the Earth, plus 90 degrees took you to the North Pole, and minus 90 degrees the South Pole. Longitude, for east-west, was more complicated – as centuries of seafarers will attest. The 0 degrees reference point has been set at the Greenwich Meridian in London, with longitude measured as up to 180 degrees east or minus 180 degrees west of this point.

As the Earth moves 360 degrees a day, or 15 degrees an hour, there is a direct relationship between longitude and time. If you are three hours ahead of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, formerly GMT), for example in Mogadishu, you will have a longitude of 45 degrees east. For this reason, having a reliable clock was essential.

GPS coordinates rely on latitude and longitude. The Empire State Building has a latitude of north 40º 44’ 54.388”, while the longitude is west 73º 59’ 8.39”. Global Satellite Positioning, however, wasn’t developed until the 1970s, when the US Department of Defense took inspiration from the way radio signals were being transmitted by Russian satellite Sputnik. When Korean Air flight 007 was shot down after accidentally entering Soviet airspace in 1983, the US government extended the technology to civilian airlines, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it became available to everyone.

GPS continues to be owned by the US government. So far, just over 70 satellites have been put in Space although not all are in service – the minimum number required for a “full constellation” is 24. While a few early attempts at producing in-car GPS and handheld receivers had entered the market in the nineties, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the technology became accurate enough to be really useful.

The first successful personal navigation device (PND) was released by TomTom in 2004, with Garmin and Magellan quickly getting in on the act. By 2008, more than 18 million units had been sold in the US, but sales went into decline with the emergence of built-in GPS on smartphones. Google Maps Navigation with turn-by-turn directions entered the scene in 2009, with Apple Maps following in 2012.  

By Jenny Southan