I used to work at Mostly Device Space. Now, I live just around the corner from Congested Reporters Cone. If this sounds like some bizarre World War II code, you’re not a million miles from the truth. what3words is a brilliant way of giving people a precise address, without dipping into longitude and latitude. And it promises to become something very big indeed.
How does what3words work?
what3words is an ingenious system devised to make finding people and their addresses easier.
Right now, we rely on physical addresses or postcodes (or zip codes, in the US) to find people. As anyone who lives more than a stone’s throw outside of a major city will know, though, postcodes aren’t very precise. In rural areas, the same postcode can cover entire mile-long lanes, which is why you’ll often find furious DHL drivers trying to do three-point turns in them. And what if you’re trying to meet people on a beach or in the middle of a National Park? The postcode’s about as much use as a hand grenade.
what3words offer much greater precision. It’s broken the entire planet down into a grid of 3m x 3m squares. That, as you can imagine, is quite a lot of squares. 57 trillion of them, to be precise. And each of those squares has a unique three-word identifier, combed from a dictionary of 40,000 words.
So 10 Downing Street, for example, can be found at Slurs This Shark:
Meanwhile, the press briefing room at the White House is at Update Tamed Skunk:
It’s hard to believe some of these are coincidences, but the company assures me there’s no gerrymandering of the dictionary. What’s more, the company employs a team of language experts to ensure the fruitiest words are removed from the what3words dictionary. That might come as little comfort to the residents of Really Small Member in Queensland Australia, though.
The chances of finding a fitting three-word combo at your address are, of course, massively improved if you’ve got big premises. Most big buildings have several squares to choose from, making it more likely to chance upon something appropriate. At the community-owned football club I’m a director of, for example, the board this season decided to pay our men’s and women’s teams equally. So it seems mightily apt that Worthy Message Goals is slap bang in the middle of our pitch:
If you’re thinking companies would pay a fortune to have a personalised set of three words for their address (‘Just Do It’ at Nike headquarters, for example), you’ve got the same capitalist heart as me. But chief marketing officer Giles Rhys Jones assured me names are not for sale, when I spoke with him at the BT Tech4Good Awards. It once offered companies the chance to buy one-word names, but the scheme was stopped because when companies moved it ruined the system for those who don’t have online access.
How do you get your what3words address?
You can visit the what3words website and pump in your regular address or postcode. Zoom in and drag the map until the pin’s sitting on your precise location and then read off the three-word phrase at the bottom of the screen.
what3words also has free apps for Android and iOS. With those apps, you can just tell the app to find your current location and get the three-word address. So if you’re trying to meet someone in the middle of Glastonbury or in the midst of the Lake District, you can use the app to get the location of your 3x3m plot and they can use the app to find exactly where you’re standing.
Who is using what3words?
All manner of people. “We’re being used by delivery companies,” explains Rhys Jones. “We’re also being used by aid and humanitarian partners. The UN use us for disaster reporting, the Red Cross use us for disaster response. We’ve been used by the Mexican government – there was a big earthquake there three months ago and they used three Spanish words to co-ordinate all the responses.”
(If you’re wondering, like I was, whether the Spanish version of the map is a literal translation of the English, it’s not – because there’s often not a direct translation of words from one language to another.)
You might even be using three-word addresses to set your satnav soon. “Most recently, we took some investment from Mercedes Benz because putting an address into a car is problematic. Trying to do GPS co-ordinates is really difficult and street addressing is a challenge as well. We’ve been built into Mercedes Benz cars, so all the new cars that they’ll be releasing, you’ll be able to get in and say three words and get turn-by-turn directions to that particular spot.”
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