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Working on Spatial Data quality and pragmatic enterprise solutions.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

What3Words – The biggest disruption since Google Maps?

I have an addressing problem. The apartment block I live in has a rear entry for visitor parking. It doesn’t have a street number. I direct guests to the right alley, and then make them call me, so I can tell them which garage door to access. I am usually in the middle of cooking something complex when they ring.

Until recently, the only alternative I had for directing guests to the right spot was “-33.884891, 151.217647”, and hope they can remember and interpret these numbers. Good luck with that. (I’m not even mentioning datums or projections, or visitors who don’t know what to do with GPS coordinates)

Chris Sheldrick
Three months ago I spoke with a young Briton named Chris Sheldrick. He used to work as an event manager, organising festivals and the like, and was paying people to meet delivery trucks at the edge of town, and explain to drivers exactly where to park, drop the chairs, or unload the catering.

Chris wondered why there wasn’t a simple, clear-cut, easy to remember system to communicate location in natural language. Addresses don’t work if there isn’t a property or building to address, and coordinates are hard to remember or interpret.

That’s why Chris created What3Words (http://what3words.com/; available for IOS and Android), and it’s now taking the world by storm.

The concept is elegant and refreshingly simple: divvy up the globe in 3x3 meter squares, and allocate a unique combination of 3 words to each square. A mathematical formula converts the words to a location and back, so you don’t need to be online to use the app.

Suddenly it’s possible to send out an invitation for a picnic on a remote beach, tell the taxi where you want to be picked up, or call an ambulance when you’re injured on a nature trail.

For years, we’ve been beholden to ‘official’ street addresses, and struggling where these are out of date, ambiguous or simply do not exist. Who doesn’t remember the tragic death of a teenage bushwalker lost in the Blue Mountains, when the triple-zero operator needed an address and ‘nearest cross street’ to direct the rescue team.

What3Words frees us from the shackles of traditional street addressing. It is empowering and puts each of us in control of communicating our own locations. It is by far the biggest disruptive technology in the geographic information domain since Google Maps came to town. I fully expect that five years from now, we’ll be wondering how we ever managed without it.

Want to know more? Check out http://what3words.com/. Or meet Chris Sheldrick when he’s in Australia in August. He’ll be delivering the opening keynote at the GeoNext conference in Melbourne (http://geonext.com.au). It’ll be big.

By the way, if you ever come to dinner, you can find our car park at http://w3w.co/handy.keys.edit. 


  1. And if you're wondering what to do with spelling mistakes - AutoSuggest (released just now) can help out!


  2. Tomtom open source alternative?

    How about NSW KN.ST (or 7XHRK.JPKK) at mapcode.com?

  3. Thanks, I hadn't seen MapCode before. Same, but different. Open Source should always be encouraged. I like the QR code idea, though it is in effect a fix for what W3W tries to achieve with the mnemonics approach.

  4. Hey Maurits

    I note that what3words self-claims that what3words
    "...used in over 170 countries by individuals, business and NGOs ... coordinates required to define the same location, and are much quicker and easier to say..."

    But dig a little deeper. Testing what3words own site demonstrates proof positive that what3words is problematic and ambiguous. As such it is dangerous in the emergency response context.

    Let's review an example that you provided in a presentation that is posted on youtube, Real Big Things #16:


    using the what3words site there is no table.chair.spoon - but you say it is outside your house in Sydney

    You claim in your presentation that what3words provides precise location accurately, unambiguously, unique!!!!

    Now lets look at this:
    table.chair.spoons - near Amagi, Fukuoka, Japan
    tables.chair.spoons - near Seongnam-si Gueonggi-do, South Korea
    table.chairs.spoons - near Suphan Buri, Thailand

    Seems to be ambiguous and words plural or singular can create significant location error.

    How about:
    table.chair.plates – near Laurence Massachusetts, USA
    tables.chair.plates – near Bloomington Minnsesota, USA
    table.chairs.plates - near Willowbrook, California, USA

    How about:
    table.chair.cups – near Boonton , New jersey USA
    tables.chairs.cups – near Shavanko Park Texas, USA
    table.chairs.cups - near San Antonio, Texas
    tables.chairs.cusp – near Novaya Chara, Kalarsky District of Zabaykalsky, Russia

    There are many examples of this confusion and dupilicity and ambiguity. This is a great worry. How reliable would this be for emergency response?

    Add or drop an "s" and disaster looms. How does this pan out for the 000 call center in Australia or 911 in the US.

    Add a bit of an accent or pronunciation variation and you have a situation of disaster. If you can't speak English or the language of what 3 words, what happens then?

    You still need a what3words on your app on your phone - and most already have GPS map app already.

    Let's try some more. How about these:
    Dogs.chair.busy – near Roessleville, New York, USA
    doggedly.chair.busy – near Gustavo A. Madereo, Tamaulipas
    dogs.chairs.busy – near Creenacres, California, USA
    dogs.chair.bugs – near Glen Ridge New Jersey, USA
    dogs.chair.buns – near Macarthur, ACT, Australia

    Hopefully I am making a point.

    You note I have not even got into the technical inadequacies of what3words. Perhaps another time.

    1. Hi Owen, thanks for your lengthy response, and the points you raise. You've clearly researched this with some vigour.

      Your main point: similar sounding 3-word combinations that are very far apart, is actually a design feature. As similar sounding words are inevitable (a 40,000 word dictionary is needed), the w3w solution actually places them so far apart that a state or national operator can almost always tell if they are correct or in error.

      You can find more on this feature at http://what3words.com/about/#how (under 'Built-in error detection')

    2. Hi Maurits

      I think that "the far apart design factor" is not so rigorous.

      dogs.chair.bugs – near Glen Ridge New Jersey, USA is just 150 miles from dogs.chair.busy – near Roessleville, New York, USA. call 911 in the US and I am sure it will be a cause of confusion and the caller will be required to provide more info.

      Now take something more local
      dogs.chair.buns – near Macarthur, ACT, Australia which is not so far from dogs.chair.burns near Kenthurst NSW a difference of 300km. Again for a national call centre on 000, I am sure they will push for more info.

      These are just arbitrary examples I pulled out of the air with almost no effort. There must be more.

      How does what3words deal with a high-rise condo or office building. the same horizontal footprint, but a floor/elevation difference?

      My discussions with international colleagues has been insightful especially regarding global indexing systems, including DDG - Discrete Digital Globe and the work of OGC which announced the specific open standards back in May 2014. So importantly these other alternatives provide open source alternatives.

      Granted that what3words has a key advantage in that the index consists of three dictionary words, which should be easy for most human-beings to remember - but not necessarily be capable of pronouncing or confusing. Given that you need an electronic device like cellphone, some type of locational electronic pin would work better.

      Anyway, good to exchange with you.

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