What3Words means that everywhere on Earth – from a ditch in the Scottish Highlands to a yurt in the Mongolian steppe – has an address. Eight years since launch, it has saved lives and sparked debate
So, you’re up on Ben Nevis. It’s mid-winter. A blinding blizzard hits. No one has a map. You’re on an ice sheet, in trainers. Instantly, you’re disorientated. Very soon, you’re freezing. Before long, you’re panicking.
Now, imagine that three words could save your life. What might they be? “Help! Up here!” Nope. “Hellooo! Anyone there?” Nope. “Oh, God, heeeelp!” Possible, but unlikely.
No, what saved the lives of four tourists in February 2020 were the words Tortoises, Swarm, and Announce. As random as the combination may sound, it led the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team directly to their location.
Behind their rescue is an app, and website, called What3Words. It works by divvying the world up into squares of three metres by three metres and then ascribing a unique trio of words to each square. Think GPS but with words to pinpoint a location rather than a complex jumble of numbers, which, if entered incorrectly, could lead you – literally – up the garden path.
Many people will have experienced the frustration of street addresses not pointing to precise locations. But on What3Words, for example, the front door of 10 Downing Street in London is identified by ‘Slurs.This.Shark’. (Insert joke about the perilous waters of Westminster.)
“It was quite sticky tape and plasters at the beginning [in 2013], so it’s been quite a ride to where we are now, which is 130 or so employees and the app being used by some of the world’s biggest brands,” says Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer at What3Words.
That delivery giants such as Hermes and global carmakers Mercedes and Ford are integrating the solution into their navigation systems has helped prove its mettle – as well as generating the cash to keep operations growing.
But what makes the free-to-use app especially intriguing are the life-enhancing – and sometimes life-saving – uses to which it is being put. Rhys Jones’s examples range from coastguards locating kayakers who have drifted out to sea, through to young children who have guided emergency services to the site of a car crash.
Where the UK-registered app is really coming into its own is among the 4 billion or so people around the world who lack an easily recognisable home address. Picture one of Uganda’s largest refugee camps, where the app’s Scrabble-like word patterns are ensuring that medical aid arrives at the correct patients’ doors. Or the taxi service in Delhi that allows women to step confidently into a cab, knowing it will drop them right on their doorstep.
What3Words seeks to encourage such solutions, by making the app free to charities, development agencies and emergency services. (Fees are charged to the commercial users, who effectively buy a licence to integrate the software into their systems). The United Nations is one long-term partner, integrating the solution into its own disaster- response tracking system.
What3Words is now available in 47 languages, from Afrikaans and Arabic to Malayalam and Mongolian. The latter is especially relevant, as Mongolia’s postal service is the first in the world to officially adopt the word-based address service. It complements, not replaces, the existing system.
The team’s ambition is to become a globally recognised address system, says Rhys Jones, who describes the challenge of living without an address as “frustrating, inefficient and unsafe”.
He may well add ‘marginalising’ to that list. Not having a house address complicates citizens’ ability to register births, marriages and deaths, to apply for benefits, and even to vote – a reality experienced by many of the 5.2 million Native Americans, for example.
Another company priority is to integrate their code into accessibility apps. For someone with sight difficulties, for example, being able to identify your location simply by hearing a three-word code is super useful.
Rhys Jones also gives the example of venues using the system to pinpoint their accessible entrances: “If I type Wembley Stadium into a map, the pin drops in the middle of the stadium, but what I actually need is entrance 37B where there’s a ramp.”
Proponents of openness in the digital age criticise What3Words for being controlled by a private business and the software for being patented. Should a mapping system on which public services are increasingly reliant be in the hands of a tech firm?
Rhys Jones emphasises that only businesses that benefit commercially are charged. This is common, he points out: “ride-hailing apps, logistics firms and car companies with satnav systems all buy access to address and GPS information. Our business model provides the resources needed to constantly improve What3Words and develop products that work for all our users, whether they pay us or not.”
The team’s ambition is to become a globally recognised address system
One open standards proponent, Terence Eden, has also questioned the cultural neutrality of using words to pinpoint locations. “Numbers are (mostly) culturally neutral,” he has said. “Words are not.”
Rhys Jones tells Positive News that they aim to remove any rude or offensive words, working with native speakers to navigate the cultural sensitivities attached to certain words.
Another issue is that the algorithm behind the app sometimes assigns similar sounding words to locations in close proximity. For example, circle.goal.leader and circle.goals.leader are less than 1.2 miles apart on the River Thames.
Critics say that this could sow confusion in a rescue situation, particularly if people have strong accents or don’t speak English as a first language.
If the app has limitations, these are less on the tech side than on the side of users, according to What3Words’ marketing man. Rather than see it as an everyday tool to report a water leak or an abandoned supermarket trolley, say, users too often view the app only as an emergency back-up.
The result, he notes, is that many people download it and then say: “I hope I never have to use it”. Until they find themselves on Ben Nevis in a blizzard, that is.
Main image: Robert Lukeman