What3Words means that everywhere on Earth, from a ditch in the Scottish Highlands to a yurt in the Mongolian steppe, there is a direction. Eight years since its launch, it has saved lives and sparked debate.
So, you are in Ben Nevis. It is the middle of winter. A blinding blizzard hits. Nobody has a map. You are in a layer of ice, in slippers. Instantly, you are disoriented. Very soon, you are freezing. Before long, you’re panicking.
Now imagine that three words could save your life. That it could be? “Help! Up here!” No hello! Anyone there? ”No.“ Oh God help me! ”Possible, but unlikely.
No, what saved the lives of four tourists in February 2020 were the words Turtles, Swarm and Announcement. As random as the combination may seem, he led the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team directly to their location.
Behind your rescue is an application and a website called What3Words. It works by dividing the world into 10-by-10-foot squares and then attributing a unique trio of words to each square. Think GPS, but with words to pinpoint a location rather than a complex jumble of numbers that, if entered incorrectly, could literally lead you down the garden path.
Many people will have experienced the frustration that street directions do not point to precise locations. But in What3Words, for example, the front door of 10 Downing Street in London is identified with ‘Slurs.This.Shark’. (Insert a joke about the dangerous waters of Westminster).
“It was a lot of duct tape and band-aids at first. [in 2013]so it’s been a great journey to where we are now, which is approximately 130 employees and the app is being used by some of the biggest brands in the world, ”says Giles Rhys Jones, What3Words chief marketing officer.
The threshold of 10 Downing Street is marked ‘Insults.East Shark’. Image: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC / MOD
The fact that delivery giants such as Hermes and global automakers Mercedes and Ford are integrating the solution into their navigation systems has helped prove its worth, 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. Rhys Jones’ examples range from coastguards locating kayakers out to sea to young children guiding emergency services to the scene of a car accident.
Where the UK-registered app is really gaining traction is among the roughly 4 billion people around the world who lack an easily recognizable home address. Imagine one of the largest refugee camps in Uganda, where the app’s Scrabble-like word patterns ensure that medical help reaches the right doors of patients. Or the taxi service in Delhi that allows women to confidently board a taxi, knowing that it will drop them right at their doorstep.
What3Words seeks to foster such solutions, making the app free to charities, development agencies, and emergency services. (Fees are charged to business users, who actually purchase a license to integrate the software into their systems.) The United Nations is a long-term partner that integrates the solution into its own disaster response monitoring system.
The app gives every three square meters of the Earth a unique three-letter address. Image: Shawn Ang
What3Words is now available in 47 languages, from Afrikaans and Arabic to Malayalam and Mongolian. The latter is especially relevant as the Mongolian postal service is the first in the world to officially adopt the word-based address service. Complements, does not replace, the existing system.
The team’s ambition is to become a globally recognized address system, says Rhys Jones, who describes the challenge of living without an address as “frustrating, inefficient and insecure.”
You may well add “marginalization” to that list. Not having a home address complicates citizens’ ability to register births, marriages, and deaths, apply for benefits, and even vote – a reality experienced by many of the 5.2 million Native Americans, for example.
Another priority for the company is to integrate its code into accessibility applications. For someone who is visually impaired, for example, being able to identify their location simply by listening to a three-word code is very helpful.
Rhys Jones also gives the example of places that use the system to mark their accessible entrances: “If I write Wembley Stadium on a map, the marker falls in the middle of the stadium, but what I really need is entrance 37B where there is a ramp. . “
The Mongolian postal service is the first in the world to officially adopt the service. Image: What3words
Proponents of openness in the digital age criticize What3Words for being controlled by a private company and the software for being proprietary. Should a mapping system that utilities increasingly depend on be in the hands of a technology company?
Rhys Jones emphasizes that only companies that profit commercially are charged. This is common, he notes: “Transportation applications, logistics companies and automobile companies with satellite navigation systems buy access to address and GPS information. Our business model provides the resources to constantly improve What3Words and develop products that work for all of our users, whether they pay us or not. “
The team’s ambition is to become a globally recognized address system
An open standards proponent, Terence Eden, has also questioned the cultural neutrality of using words to identify locations. “The numbers are (for the most part) culturally neutral,” he said. “Words are not.”
Rhys Jones tells Positive News that his goal is to remove any rude or offensive words, working with native speakers to navigate the cultural sensitivities associated with certain words.
If the app has limitations, these are less on the technology side than on the user side, according to the What3Words marketing man. Rather than seeing it as a daily tool for reporting a water leak or abandoned grocery cart, for example, users see the app only as an emergency backup.
The result, he points out, is that a lot of 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.
Lead Image: Robert Lukeman