ER24 emergency personnel locate a car crash site using what3words addressing system. Picture: SUPPLIED.
ER24 emergency personnel locate a car crash site using what3words addressing system. Picture: SUPPLIED.

What3words, a British startup that says it can find any location on the planet using three words, has signed a deal with the biggest SA emergency services group, ER24.  

ER24 will use the what3words mobile phone application to deploy emergency services to even the most remote parts of SA.

What3words has divided the planet up into 3m x 3m blocks and has assigned three words for each block to help users find their locations. Using “rally.latches.steams”, for example, will take a person to a precise spot in the Johannesburg Botanic Garden.

ER24 communications officer Russel Meiring said ER24 responds to between 600 and 1,000 emergency calls a day. A 10% saving in time in finding a location has a huge impact, he said.  

The startup’s technology will make it easier to access areas with no street addresses, which is a big problem for businesses such as online retailers who often struggle with undefined locations in SA. 

Lyndsey Duff, what3words country manager for SA, said “we want to be the global standard for addressing [finding physical addresses] in five years”.

She said what3words makes money when one of their clients uses the platform to find a location. For example, if a grocery delivery company “pings” their platform, what3words receives a micro-charge which can vary, Duff said. 

However, what3words does not charge every partner. ER24 is using the technology for free, she said.  

Locally, the platform is also used by logistics companies DB Schenker SA and RTT Group, together with Apple reseller iStore. 

Headquartered in London, what3words has so far raised £42m (R781m).

“It is hard to change behaviour,” said Duff, explaining that the biggest challenge to greater adoption of their app is shifting how people think about location and the concept of street addresses. 

ER24 will incorporate information about what3words into its training content for schools, workshops and social media campaigns to assist in educating people about how to use the platform, Meiring said. 

What3words is also working with SA artificial intelligence software company Cortex Logic to identify and assign a three-word location address to buildings and structures in informal settlements using satellite mapping technology. 

The startup could change the way street addresses are handled in SA and around the world. Duff said they were in talks with the SA Post Office and had worked with Stats SA on providing location data. She said the greatest potential for their app is standardising how addresses are formed globally.

In parts of Japan, for example, houses on some streets are numbered according to when they were built, unlike in SA where the sequence goes from one end of a road to another.

Correction: August 20, 2019

An earlier version of this article stated that what3words had so far raised $13.8m (R212.51m). The company has raised £42m (R781m).