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No address on that Mongolian yurt? ‘Human

Aug 05, 2023Aug 05, 2023

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Where in the world are you?

The answer could be a street address, or numeric GPS coordinates expressing latitude and longitude. But many locations lack street addresses, and GPS coordinates are long and cumbersome.

A London startup called What3words devised a solution: It divided the planet into 10-by-10-foot squares — 57 trillion of them — and gave each a simple address made up of three random words: plants.invest.statue for instance (that's inside a coffee shop at The Chronicle building).

"Talking about a precise location is really difficult," said Giles Rhys Jones, What3words marketing chief. "We wanted a system of human-friendly GPS."

What3words is a free app and website for consumers that is used in 170 countries and 26 languages. It's now making a push into the United States. More than 1,000 businesses, government and nonprofit users pay for its code: the Red Cross, delivery companies, travel guides, the Mongolian post office, Mercedes-Benz (which invested in it), Domino's Pizza and Latin America's biggest ride-hailing company, for instance. Santa Clara officials used it as part of the emergency response for Super Bowl 50. The company has raised $54 million in funding.

Now What3words is partnering with San Francisco's Airbnb to enable remote and nomadic people to rent to travelers. It's starting in Mongolia with about 30 hosts who don't have addresses, including nomadic reindeer herders in the taiga forest and people living in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. Guests can meet them at a location like settings.holly.stereo at the forest's edge and then ascend the mountain by reindeer or horse to a camp at A night in a yurt is about $120.

"It is very hard for tourists to find us, and for us to explain the location when we have limited mobile network access," said Otgonbayar and Zorigt, Dukha reindeer herders, in an interview translated from Mongolian and provided by What3words. (Mongolian people commonly use given names only.) "We have to explain the address as ‘pass those mountains ... and then pass the river.’"

For nomadic people, hosting travelers provides income that could help sustain their lifestyle, Mongolian travel officials said. The nomads, who often must ascend mountains to get cell service, work with co-hosts, who live in places like Ulaanbaatar with internet connectivity and who can communicate with guests in English. GPS, unlike cell service, works in remote locations.

For Airbnb, What3words "delivers an innovative way to provide hosts with an accurate and reliable address while constantly on the move, and creates new livelihood opportunities for nomadic and rural communities in Mongolia and around the world," said Cameron Sinclair, Airbnb social innovation lead, in a statement.

What3words has generated controversy as a proprietary system, rather than one that is open. RealNames, an internet keyword system similarly controlled by its maker, shut down in 2002 despite signing deals with companies like Google.

Another issue: Since What3words relies on connections to satellites, it does not work in some enclosed locations where it might be useful, such as airports and shopping malls.

Funded in 2013, What3words originated in the concert world. Its founders "were frustrated by rubbish addressing, but roadies and drummers couldn't remember GPS coordinates," Rhys Jones said. After noodling about the problem with a "math genius" friend, they hit upon dividing the world into 57 trillion squares and figured they’d need just 40,000 words to describe them all with three common words (40,000 cubed is 64 trillion).

"If it's hard to describe a location, we’re great in that circumstance," Rhys Jones said.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid