Meet the British Company That Wants to Change the White House’s Address

It also wants a new address for the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and absolutely every other place.

The White House is seen in the early evening September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Feb. 26, 2014, midnight

Say you’re hik­ing through the woods. You fall, break your leg, and can’t walk. You call 911. How do you tell res­cuers to find you? Right now, you’d have to read out your lat­it­ude and lon­git­ude, for ex­ample: 39.341324, -77.716231.

But what if you could send them to the same loc­a­tion by simply say­ing “math­em­at­ics.pelt.skis”?

Or say you’re at­tend­ing an event at a down­town hotel that, des­pite its single ad­dress, bor­ders sev­er­al dif­fer­ent streets and has mul­tiple en­trances. You could print out a lengthy list of dir­ec­tions to the cor­rect en­trance — or the event’s or­gan­izers could just tell you to ar­rive at onion.pea­nut.boats.

This al­tern­at­ive map­ping is the brainchild of the Lon­don-based com­pany what3­words, which has di­vided the globe in­to 57 tril­lion 3-by-3-meter squares, as­sign­ing each a ran­dom three-word iden­ti­fi­er.

The goal is to provide more-pre­cise loc­a­tions when con­ven­tion­al ad­dresses aren’t ad­equate — without the clunky 16-di­git GPS co­ordin­ates that are the cur­rent al­tern­at­ive.

“Giv­ing people post codes and even street ad­dresses is just not ac­cur­ate enough,” said Chris Sheldrick, one of the com­pany’s founders. “[Lat­it­ude and lon­git­ude] is really im­prac­tic­al. It’s like giv­ing your phone num­ber to someone — twice.”¦ Let’s get the ac­cur­acy of GPS co­ordin­ates, but let’s get a hu­man-friendly way to get people to use them.”

With the what3­words sys­tem, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. be­comes hours.alert.photo. The Cap­it­ol? Judges.tun­nel.bump. Pay­er.open.leads gets you to the Statue of Liberty.

The com­pany — run from vibes.ledge.double — launched its product in Ju­ly of last year, but this week it fi­nally turned loose a sales team and is pre­par­ing a new, nat­ive app that will in­clude dir­ec­tions to its loc­a­tions.

The map-read­ing pro­gram, Sheldrick says, has nearly end­less util­it­ies. In Aus­tralia, some emer­gency re­spon­ders are plan­ning to use what3­words to bet­ter find people who need help. Heli­copter pi­lots say it will make it easi­er to find land­ing zones. Oth­er nav­ig­a­tion apps want to in­cor­por­ate it to make loc­a­tion-find­ing more user-friendly. And every­day people could use it to find one an­oth­er at a mu­sic fest­iv­al or oth­er large ven­ue.

“The world of events could have a very pos­it­ive plat­form,” Sheldrick said, cit­ing his own back­ground as an event-lo­gist­ics or­gan­izer. The dif­fi­culty of herd­ing vo­lun­teers — es­pe­cially in a rur­al en­vir­on­ment — to a spe­cif­ic spot proved the dif­fi­culty of provid­ing loc­a­tions us­ing con­ven­tion­al ad­dress­ing.

An­oth­er pos­sib­il­ity? “We could really re­vo­lu­tion­ize ef­fi­ciency for de­liv­er­ies,” Sheldrick said, es­pe­cially for “any­body go­ing any­where for the first time. How of­ten is that in­form­a­tion re­li­able?” De­liv­ery com­pan­ies, he said, have ex­pressed lots of in­terest in us­ing what3­words — in­clud­ing a Dubai com­pany that plans to in­teg­rate it in­to its launch next month.

But, of course, for those three words to mean any­thing but gib­ber­ish, more people will have to be­come fa­mil­i­ar with the app. Sheldrick says it makes too much sense not to catch on. “I genu­inely be­lieve ad­op­tion will be fast,” he said.

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