A new app has the potential to revolutionise the world’s traditional system of addresses using an ingenious three-word system

When Nicola Sturgeon poses for photographs on the steps of her of- ficial residence, she stands before a building steeped in history. It is one of Scotland’s better-known addresses. Designed by Robert Adam, Bute House at 6 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh was bequeathed to the National Trust by the Marquess of Bute in 1966.

But, if the First Minister wants to move with the times she can now choose a different address – without moving house. A new app – What3Words – has allocated unique identifiers to the 57 trillion 3m-by-3m squares that make up the earth’s surface. Those steps Sturgeon stands on? The location can be pinpointed precisely on a map using three words: ‘spend.regime.began’. If she feels a little uncomfortable about that, the FM could shuffle about a bit. How about ‘jokes.rang.these’? Perhaps not. Retreating inside, she can opt for ‘sheep. paid.shrimp’, ‘canny.dared.chins’ or even ‘regard.dates.union’.

The app is the brainchild of Chris Sheldrick, who spent 10 years in the music business managing events around the world. He was constantly faced with suppliers not finding site entrances and bands losing their way between hotel and venue.

Sheldrick tried using precise GPS co-ordinates instead of addresses, but their complexity proved too much for people. Determined to find a solution, he worked with a mathematician friend on an algorithm that replaces GPS coordinates with three word combinations that people can easily understand and memorise.

It uses 40,000 words to generate the 57 trillion three-word variations required. Offensive and similar sounding words (such as to, too and two) have been eliminated. The free app can be used at events to accurately locate people and facilities. The organisers of Glastonbury deployed it last year to distribute equipment around the site and for first aid response. Festival-goers also gave their tents addresses so that friends could find them.

What3Words is being adopted commercially; integrated into navigation and car share apps, logistics systems, travel guides, property search sites and more. The British Museum is using it to record the position of archaeological finds.

In Scotland, there are obvious applications in the tourism industry, to pinpoint places of interest and plot walking trails. Charles Selwyn Dixon-Spain, owner of Dunans Castle, has embraced it as part of the restoration effort of the ancient ruin at Glendaruel in the Cowal Peninsula.

It is has also been adopted by thinkWhere, a geographic information systems (GIS), company in Stirling. It has more than 25 years experience working with traditional addressing and gazetteer products and understands the strengths and weaknesses of the existing datasets. thinkWhere intends to incorporate What3Words as an integral component of their technical architecture, as part of its new cloud GIS platform.

“What3Words presents a completely new approach to addressing, one that many of our customers will find simple and intuitive on the one hand and, on the other, a powerful means of directly locating and referencing the millions of buildings, objects and assets that don’t have addresses,” said chief executive, Alan Moore.

“Even though Scotland and the rest of Britain are among the best mapped and addressed countries in the world, what3words will deliver direct benefits to rural estate management, asset and facilities management as well as fleet logistics and emergency planning, to name but a few.”

But What3Words is also revolutionising the delivery of aid and empowering disenfranchised people around the world. It won the 2015 Grand Prix for Innovation at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Ben Jones, a member of the jury, praised What3Words’ ability to “solve a massive problem for humanity with a beautiful touch of simplicity.” He added: “What3Words is substantial in the impact it has had and is already out there working and saving lives.”

Sheldrick, co-founder and chief executive, points out that around 75% of the world’s population have inadequate or non-existent addresses. They are unable to get deliveries or receive aid, and cannot exercise their rights as citizens. The problem hampers the growth and development of entire nations, he said.

“Economists estimate that three billion people could join the middle class during the next 15 years. It would be the biggest and most dramatic decline in global poverty yet. However, three hurdles stand in their way: they are unconnected, unbanked and unaddressed.

“Connectivity is obviously the easiest problem to solve. Providing access to financial services is a much bigger challenge, but we know it can be done. Which leaves us with arguably the biggest but also least-understood problem: the unaddressed. Four billion people around the world don’t have an address.”

Sheldrick visited Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. A Google map of the shantytown shows a dozen or so roads; in fact there are more than 3,000. Carteiro Amigo, a local co-operative, is using What3Words for its postal service; a basic facility but one that is a prerequisite for economic growth.

“The applications are endless,” said Sheldrick, “securing property rights, optimising e-commerce logistics, arranging aid deliveries, tracking epidemics like Ebola, tackling natural disasters, and economic empowerment. They all need the boost of a global address system.”