It was in the south-western Japanese city of Kumamoto when I first cursed myself for not downloading the app.. It was the afternoon of 5 October 2019. I had just flown in from Europe via Osaka, taken the airport bus to Kumamoto’s central station and after a 15-minute tram ride was trying to find the hotel I had booked to stay in for two nights.
I was there for the Rugby World Cup and to explore parts of the country I had not been to when living and then visiting Japan between 1990 to 2012. In the article I wrote at the time I mentioned why I had not taken a taxi to the hotel:
“Don’t head for the taxi rank. Taxis are too expensive and anyway no Japanese taxi driver I have ever met understands English, wants to understand English or can read our alphabet.”
I could have added that Japanese taxi drivers are also incapable of reading a printed map, even one written in Japanese. Tell them the name of your destination in English or attempt the same in Japanese and you will get a shake of the head. “Wakarimasen”. He doesn’t understand. Show them a printed map, with instructions in Japanese – take the second right at the gas station, then the third left at the 7-Eleven … - and often as not they will turn it upside down with much sucking through teeth. “Wakarimasen”. Satellite navigation has made life easier for the Japanese taxi driver burdened with a gaijin in his cab but even with a sat. nav. to guide him he can still fail to get you to where you want to go.
The problem, as anyone who has been to Japan will know only too well, is that there is no logical address system. Houses are not numbered. Only major streets are named or signposted (and even then seldom clearly). People live on numbered blocks of land. 7-7-202 is the start of the six-line address of one Japanese friend of mine living in Yokohama.
I had a detailed tourist map of Kumamoto. On it I had marked my hotel, written in English only. But the marker, I was to discover, was placed 2 streets away from the hotel’s actual location. Accuracy is little better with an electronic map in Japan; the marker or dot will often hover over a point hundreds of metres from where you want to be. Not a problem when you can read the building numbers going from 1 to 200 along each side of a European city street. But a major problem when there are no such numbers and instead there are
hundreds of banners written in characters you cannot understand telling you what lies within each floor of each building. Such was the case with me on that October afternoon in the back streets of Kumamoto. I know most of the 46 syllabic symbols of Katakana, the script in which Hotel is written in Japan, but that’s of no use if there are many hotels along the same street.
I found my hotel in the end. But only after 15 minutes of walking up and down the street where I was sure it lay. I was saved, as is nearly always the case in Japan, by a kind stranger. Yuki saw that I was lost and not only took me to my tiny hotel (I had passed its open door 3 times) but pointed out that the even tinier bar opposite was showing every rugby match (I bought him several Kirin beers there that same evening).
So, what was this app I wished I had downloaded? Several of you will already know from my title. It’s called What3Words, a company founded by two young Brits in 2013. One, Chris Sheldrick, had spent the previous 10 years organising live music events across Europe. Getting suppliers and bands to the right place at the right time using standard addresses or GPS coordinates had proved a nightmare. He and Jack Waley-Cohen came up with an idea both beautifully simple and incredibly ambitious: to divide the surface of the planet into 3-metre by 3-metre squares and give each square a unique 3-word address. One of these 57,000,000 million squares is stitch.stardom.caves. That’s the name given in English to the square outside the door of my Kumamoto hotel. If I had had the What3Words app on my phone 18 months ago, I could have entered the name of the hotel in English and it would have shown me that square on the map. If I had been a French rugby supporter, the app could have given me the name of the same square in French.
Even better if the hotel itself had given its What3Words address, in Japanese as well as in English, among its contacts details. Those 57 trillion squares are now named in 49 languages (Amharic and Canadian English were added last month). They are not translations of the original English. The address must be 3 words; a single word in English – e.g. potato – can be more words in another language - e.g. pomme de terre in French. So, the company’s algorithm has had to choose 57 trillion addresses in 49 different languages. But once chosen at random, the addresses are not changed, something which can cause trouble and may, in the end, be the system’s undoing. I shall come back to this.
So, who is using What3Words for what? Drivers of new Mercedes, LandRover and certain Ford cars can simply speak the 3-word address of their destination to their sat.nav and it will find it immediately (they hope). Mercedes so love the company that they bought 10% of it in January 2018. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a boon to What3Words and to the delivery firms, like Hermes, DHL and dpd, which have begun to use What3Wordsto allow their drivers to deliver to the exact 3m square which their customers choose. Out for the day and want that parcel to be put put of sight of passers by? Give the delivery firm the 3m square on which your dustbins sit. As one survey recently found, “70% of addresses in the world don’t lead to the front door of a property”. Tens of millions of people, mostly in developing countries, have no address at all. Now, with What3Words, small businesses and villagers in India are beginning to have one. Emergency services in the UK and many other countries were early adopters of What3Words to enable them to find lost souls on mountain tops, deserts, forests and oceans, or to locate the exact place where an accident has occurred. The UK’s AA will now ask a member whose car has broken down to download the app and give them the 3-word address of the square they are calling from. Ride-hailing companies such as Uber-owned Careem in the Arab world use What3Words…
You may think after reading this that I work for the company’s Marketing department but I don’t. I’m just of one its fast-growing legion of fans. Go to https://what3words.com/daring.lion.race to find out more (the 3-word address in their url takes you to a 3m square in Trafalgar Square, London).
So, what might stop Messrs Sheldrick and Waley-Cohen becoming multi-billionaires? Critics have been quick to point out that having trillions of fixed addresses chosen at random are bound to throw up inappropriate word-strings – kill.peace.pins at a war memorial say (I made that up). An innocent word in one country may be offensive to a speaker of the same language in another (e.g. fanny in the US and the UK). Such critics have argued that it would have been better to use numbers, assuming wrongly that they are somehow neutral. Aside from the fact that a string of numbers is less memorable than a string of 3 words, and that it harks back to the confusing GPS numbers that caused Sheldrick’s clients and suppliers to get lost, people in China and Japan would shun addresses with too many 4s and hanker after ones with lots of 8s.
But the biggest obstacles to the company’s long-term success are likely to be governments and peoples who worry that a private company based in the UK owns this system of addresses all over the world. What3Words does not charge emergency services, private users or businesses which don’t use it much. It makes its money from businesses which use it a lot in order to be more efficient and competitive. Even so, as Sheldrick says himself, “There’s a lot about addresses that is deeply personal and historical.” Does someone sitting in Texas, Shanghai or Abu Dhabi want their address to have been unalterably fixed by an algorithm owned by a private British firm with a major German corporate shareholder?
You could compare it to the fixing of 0° longitude by the representatives of 24 countries who met in Washington in 1884. The UK ruled a fifth of the world. So, it was hardly surprising, if still a diplomatic triumph that, much to the chagrin of the French, the Greenwich Observatory in London was chosen as the point at which the Prime Meridian would run through. I’m quite sure Washington itself would have been chosen if that decision had been taken in 1984. So, maybe China, in the end, will decide a new universal address system for the 21st century and not some British dudes in London.
Whatever happens we should thank Sheldrick and Waley-Cohen for the poetic pleasure they have given us. There is a What3Words haiku bot on Twitter that turns the 3-word strings into nonsense poems. I prefer to find out how appropriate, or inappropriate, are the 3-word addresses of famous ordinary addresses. American readers, the White House has hundreds of 3-metre squares. Surely you can find one which chimes with your view of the present or past occupant. Go to the front door of 10 Downing Street and those with no love for the current prime minister might relish that the square outside is slurs.this.shark. Step inside though and a Tory supporter will prefer the next square – input.caring.brain.
The square outside my front door is enters.hers.winks. I have put that as my UK address under my email signature; my wife does not approve.