Lyndsey Duff: Ex-diplomat bringing cutting edge tech back home to SA

When I met Lyndsey Duff she was based at South Africa House on Trafalgar Square in London, responsible for inward investment into the country. That must have been one of the most difficult jobs on earth, given the State Capture chaos being wrought by the Zuptoids. Instead of following one of many alternative paths, the former diplomat returned home to help introduce the revolutionary What3words system into a country that desperately needs to extend benefits of the formal economy to millions excluded from it. She explained the progress on this week’s Rational Radio. – Alec Hogg

We close off with Lyndsey Duff who I met in London. It was when you were looking after inward investment at the High Commission – in other words the South African House in London. A pretty tough job you had back then. I guess there’s only so much that one can do to try promote inward investment when you have the Zuptoids running riot.

Yes, that was certainly an interesting time of my life.

When did you decide to join this company? We’re going to talk in some detail about “what3words”, but from the position that you were sitting in at South Africa House – and a very senior position in the foreign office – you must have had lots of options.

It was an incredible role. We got to meet with leaders of industry, South African businesses in London, to drive and represent the interests of South Africa abroad. So I had a couple of options, but I had an inkling that it was time to come home after four years in the grey sky’s of London. It just seemed a natural progression. I had an interest in technology and the potential of tech ecosystems to transform the lives of young people across the world and it seemed like an interesting realm that I wanted to get into in South Africa. This is why, when the opportunity came up with What3words, I decided to jump at it and to contribute to the tech scene locally and to head up things here.

There’s an organisation in the UK called Syndicate Room and they rate the 100 fastest growing companies in the country. What3words is in position number 33 for 2018 and it is a fascinating change in the way that we look at addresses – postal addresses. In the UK they use postal codes, but this takes it one step further. Just in real basic terms unpack how what3words actually works.

What3words is essentially a global digital addressing system. We’ve taken traditional street addresses as we know them – 55 Jones Road or 275 Jan Smuts Avenue, and we’ve realised they’re not actually fit for purpose. So we decided to take something that has been around for hundreds of years and has never really changed and evolved in that time and to completely rethink it. What3words has basically divided the world up into a grid. Three metre by three metre squares based on GPS coordinates and we’ve assigned every single square its own totally unique, what we call – a three word address. It’s a three word identifier that refers to an exact nine square meters, literally everywhere in the world. So as an example our office in Woodmead in Johannesburg can be found at ‘punk brave worriers’. Everybody thinks we chose that but we didn’t. The right foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York City can be found at ‘Chip twice update’ and that’s the only square in the world that is called ‘Chip twice update’. So it basically means that anyone can now talk about anywhere, really simply. We came up with it because the traditional addresses are actually a very limiting factor for millions of people globally. The UN estimates that four billion people have an inadequate address if they have one at all. Think back to the days of opening your first bank account. You always need proof of residence. You need proof of residence to register on the electoral roll, to vote and participate in your own democracy. You needed to register a birth. If you don’t have proof of residence, which millions of people in South Africa don’t have – due to the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, it means you can’t participate in the economy and indeed in your democracy. We think that What3word addresses are on the way to helping solve that issue for millions of people.

It’s easy to find out. I was looking at my favourite coffee shop in the Bryanston shopping centre. It’s called unzips key robot. Clearly these properties are bigger than nine square metres so is there an infinite number of words? Most of the words when I looked on the app are easy to understand – walkway, carbon, unzips, robot.

Exactly. We’ve designed the system so that the easiest words in each language, are available in a) Urban centres, and b) the countries that actually speak that language. We’re not just available in English, we’re also available in 35 other languages globally and that’s everything from Turkish to Mongolian to Zulu here in South Africa. That said, you can still navigate to the jungles of Brazil in Zulu if you need to. So we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible by using dictionary words and not names. If you think about trying to speak into a device if you need to navigate somewhere and say, 265 Jan Smuts Avenue, your average Google isn’t going to actually say “Oh yeah I know where Jan Smuts is”, it’s gonna come back with “no didn’t recognise that, what are you talking about?”. If you’re using dictionary words in voice inputs, you have a much easier way for that device to understand what you’re talking about. So instead of saying 265 Jan Smuts you say “navigate me to table chair spoon” and it can understand you. In fact that’s how a lot of the businesses that we’re working with today are using us. Daimler has actually invested in the business and they’ve put us into a number of their Mercedes Benz vehicles, so the Mercedes Benz drivers can navigate with voice to three word addresses. They say “hey Mercedes navigate me to “punk brave warriors” and they would land at our front door in Woodmead.

I noticed from the website that there is a presence in Mongolia and a presence in South Africa and obviously in the UK, I presume in the US as well. Has our country and Mongolia been selected in particular, or why would it appear so strongly on the website?

Mongolia was actually the first country where we set up a local market office and that was because the government of Mongolia was the first one to come on board and work with us to introduce What3words as an addressing standard in that country. Our team there has done a phenomenal job of working with the government and the postal services, so that if you want to send a letter in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia or to anyone else in the country, you can actually just send a letter to – ALEC HOGG at “table chair spoon” and they’ll be able to deliver it to that exact address. So they were the first of now eight governments that we’ve been working with since the business was founded, to introduce What3words as an addressing standard. South Africa was set up as a country office – just under two years ago when I came home from the UK, because our management team recognised the need for a solution like this in South Africa. Because of the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, millions of people are excluded from actually having an address. Government – as we all know, has more pressing priorities in the system than addressing streets and suburbs and informal settlements – it’s never really at the top of the list. We can make a difference to people on the ground. That’s what we’ve been doing with a number of our commercial partners and also new partners with our launch next month.

Lyndsey have you got any relationships with Waze or Google Maps or Alexa or Siri?

On our app, – if you download the free What3words app, you can voice navigate. You can use the search bar and click the little microphone and say “table chair spoon” or “punk braved warriors” – whatever three word address you need to find. That voice technology is built in. It would recognise the words that you’re saying. You are then able to – through the app, navigate with whatever preferred navigation you use in your daily life. If you need to find our offices at “punk braved worriers”, you could navigate with Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, even offline providers. You can use our app and call an Uber.

But you’ve got to use your app at this stage?

Yes. The ongoing conversations are happening at a global level, not in South Africa, but the ability and flexibility is there. Essentially a What3words address is a GPS coordinate. If that integration is in place, then any map and any navigation system that understands a GPS coordinate can get you to where you need to be.

What’s the reaction been like from the South African government? You’ve unpacked why it’s important that many people who haven’t had the opportunity of having an address in the past get one, but we know for instance the post office has got its own issues, the Home Affairs have got some quite pressing priorities of their own. Have you had any joy?

We’ve certainly had those discussions. In many ways our timing was slightly off. There was a lot of focus on the May elections so we’ve been laying low and have been working with a number of private sector partners. Now that the elections are over and things are settling down with the new administration, we plan to pick up those conversations to get things cracking. We think – particularly with the Department of Home Affairs, the post office and the Census Bureau, that there’s some real exciting things we can do with three word addresses.

Lyndsey Duff is with What3words. As you heard, she was in London with the High Commission, looking after inward investment into South Africa and joined this organisation a couple of years ago. Go have a look at you can find out what words your own address is by using the app. It’s an easier way to navigate pretty much any where.