What3words divides the world into trillions of 10-foot location squares

The precise system of describing location is assisting efforts ranging from humanitarian aid to luxury vehicle navigation.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

I had a busy day in Manhattan last week. For my first appointment, I entered the building at ///rated.clients.guitar. After that, it was a relatively short trip to ///sings.nodded.fits. My afternoon travels then took me to ///advice.bonus.mental.

What on Earth am I talking about? A more appropriate question would be, "Where on Earth am I talking about?" The three-word codes are a few of the unfathomably many that have been developed by a company called What3words. The company has parceled our home world into 57 trillion 10-foot squares. And as it happens, that's about the same number of unique three-word permutations one can create from a 40,000-word vocabulary in a language such as English. If you'd like to know the three-word code of your favorite destinations, you can look it up in the company's free mobile app.

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Giles Rhys Hones, the company's CMO, notes that assigning the codes wasn't limited to conjuring the word combinations completely randomly; it needed to remove offensive words and use phonetically distinct words to name locations. One wrong word could potentially have someone heading to the other side of a major ocean -- or, even worse, in the middle of one. As to what is preventing a potential competitor from creating its own word code system and creating such worthwhile mnemonics as "send Ross money," the company has filed patents on its method of converting the words to locations.


What3words is not the only attempt to abstract extremely precise but mnemonically difficult latitude and longitude codes. Google Maps, for example, uses something called Plus codes to designate locations, but they must be paired with city information and are not easy to remember. The competitive shortcut system may make it difficult for What3words to land Google, a dominant mapping power, as a client for inclusion.

In any case, the race is on for adoption. One of What3words' investors is Daimler, which produces Mercedes Benz vehicles and is one-third owner of the Here mapping company, so What3words has an in for getting embedded there. Jones notes that you can already speak a What3words code to a Mercedes' navigation system, and it will know precisely where you want to go. All in all, more than a thousand businesses and organizations in sectors such as automotive, travel and logistics have adopted the system.

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At only about 20MB, the What3words database is compact and can work offline. That has proved useful in some of the humanitarian missions for which it has been employed, allowing aid workers to get almost exactly to the location of people in need. Another application for the company is courier services. Rather than having to specify whether packages should be dropped off at a front door, side entrance or rear entrance. The company says it can point to research showing that couriers using their system are more efficient. It also seems like a particularly useful system to have in place for drones.

If you looked up the three-word locations I mentioned in the first paragraph, you'd notice they all point to the entrances of large buildings but don't provide any clue into what floor of the building a location may be. That obviously leaves a lot of vertical ambiguity in densely populated areas. The company says it is considering a number of ways to designate height, which must contend with decisions such as measurement in absolute terms (feet, meters) or floors. Other limitations include no integrated way for specifying sets of squares to designate a larger area and no way to specify a route or movement, although it seems these could be overlaid on the system.

That may help to explain why the company's latest foray is a partnership with Airbnb focused on adventure travel. Using the three-word system creates a lingua franca for communicating precise locations even in areas that have no addresses. But the system also has broader relevance to the lodging disruptor, enabling hosts to specify separate entrances for guests, for example.

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As its three-slash prefixes hint, What3words is much like a URL system for the real world, but can businesses and consumers rely on it sticking around? According to the company's website, should it cease operations, it has established provisions to transfer the technology to another company on the same terms it offers if it can find one. Failing that, it promises to release its source code into the public domain. While not foolproof, it's the kind of assurance that should be shouted from the top of Mount Everest, also known as ///stamping.arcade.extractions.

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