RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're now going to spend a few minutes talking about delivering the mail in Mongolia. Why, you ask? Well, because it's really, really difficult. There are few street addresses in Mongolia, and much of the population is nomadic. And let's face it - all yurts tend to look the same.
CHRIS SHELDRICK: Even in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, there aren't really street names that people use in everyday life. People tend to use directions. Or they say, you know, by the blue pearl building, the fourth lamppost on the left.
MARTIN: That is Chris Sheldrick. He is co-founder of What3Words. His company has helped Mongolia overhaul its postal and address system. It's based on the idea that every spot on Earth has its own unique coordinates. But long strings of numbers like GPS coordinates aren't exactly user-friendly, and this is where Chris Sheldrick's company comes in. I asked him how this new system works.
SHELDRICK: What we've done is we've cut the world into 3-meter squares. So that's 57 trillion 3-meter squares. And there's enough words in the dictionary - so I'm talking words like table, chair, spoon - that you can actually assign three words to every 3-meter square in the world and you don't run out of combinations. So if I say toffee.branch.pyramid, then that's the name of a 3-meter square somewhere in the world.
MARTIN: All right, so break that down into how this would serve Mongolians in practice. If someone before said, hey, you can find our house - we're next to the blue yurt on the right. Instead of that descriptor, they would - what?
SHELDRICK: So the first thing that somebody would do would be to discover their three words. And the way they do that is they get the What3Words app, which is free, and they - the first thing that app will do is say, all right, here are the three words for where you are right now. So you might find you live at apple.spoon.pyramid. And then once you've got those three words, the post service or the courier can sort that mail, they can put it in the driver's routing package, and then the driver will route exactly to your front door.
MARTIN: And it means, though, everybody in Mongolia who wants to use this system has to have some kind of access to the Internet.
SHELDRICK: Most people in Mongolia have a smartphone. So yes, you need to be connected while you get the app, but it's important to understand the app works off-line. So once you've got it, you can go anywhere - in the middle of the desert - and you can press a button and it will tell you what your three words are there.
MARTIN: How did the project come about? Did the Mongolian government approach you, or did you approach them?
SHELDRICK: So I met one of the shareholders of the Mongolian post service at the World Economic Forum, and he told me about the need to have an addressing system in Mongolia. They were really crying out for it. So that's when I flew over there and then met the post service. I met the prime minister, I met the mayor of Ulaanbaatar, and everybody was incredibly supportive of the project that we're doing.
MARTIN: I'm talking to you in Helsinki? Where are you right now, Chris? You can anticipate my next question.
SHELDRICK: I can, but I'm on the phone.
MARTIN: So you can't look up your address.
MARTIN: And you haven't memorized it.
SHELDRICK: Let me try multitasking on my phone very quickly.
SHELDRICK: Just two seconds, hang on.
SHELDRICK: So right now, I'm at kennels.count.caps in the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland.
MARTIN: OK, pretty good. But my editor just looked up NPR's address, and it's - it might be better, I'm just saying - dust.bubble.empire. Not sure if I'm ever going to write that on an envelope, but there you have it. Chris Sheldrick, co-founder of What3Words. Thanks so much for talking with us, Chris.
SHELDRICK: Thank you so much, and goodbye.
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