Lifesaving, convenient and controversial: the app that gave everywhere an address

What3Words means that all over on Earth– from a ditch in the Scottish Highlands to a yurt in the Mongolian steppe– has an address. Eight years given that launch, it has actually saved lives and sparked debate

Youre up on Ben Nevis. Its mid-winter. A blinding blizzard hits. Nobody has a map. Youre on an ice sheet, in fitness instructors. Immediately, youre disorientated. Soon, youre freezing. Eventually, youre panicking.

Now, think of that 3 words could conserve your life. “Help! Possible, however unlikely.

No, what conserved the lives of 4 travelers in February 2020 were the words Tortoises, Swarm, and Announce. As random as the mix might sound, it led the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team straight to their location.

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Proponents of openness in the digital age criticise What3Words for being managed by a private organization and the software for being patented. Should a mapping system on which civil services are increasingly dependent remain in the hands of a tech firm?

Behind their rescue is an app, and site, called What3Words., so its been quite a ride to where we are now, which is 130 or so staff members and the app being used by some of the worlds greatest brand names,” states Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer at What3Words.

He might well include marginalising to that list. Not having a home address complicates residents ability to sign up deaths, births and marital relationships, to look for advantages, and even to vote– a truth experienced by much of the 5.2 million Native Americans, for example.

” It was rather sticky tape and plasters at the beginning [in 2013], so its been rather a ride to where we are now, which is 130 or so workers and the app being utilized by a few of the worlds greatest brands,” states Giles Rhys Jones, primary marketing officer at What3Words.

Main image: Robert Lukeman.

The app gives every 3 square metres of Earth a special three-letter address. Image: Shawn Ang.

Rhys Jones also gives the example of places using the system to determine their available entrances: “If I type Wembley Stadium into a map, the pin drops in the middle of the stadium, but what I in fact require is entryway 37B where theres a ramp.”.

Lots of people will have experienced the disappointment of street addresses not indicating 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 risky waters of Westminster.).

But what makes the free-to-use app particularly interesting are the life-enhancing– and sometimes life-saving– uses to which it is being put. Rhys Joness examples vary from coastguards finding kayakers who have drifted out to sea, through to kids who have actually assisted emergency services to the website of an auto accident..

Another business top priority is to integrate their code into accessibility apps. For somebody with sight difficulties, for example, having the ability to recognize your area merely by hearing a three-word code is extremely useful.

Rhys Jones tells Positive News that they intend to remove any rude or offensive words, working with native speakers to navigate the cultural level of sensitivities attached to particular words.

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 an unique trio of words to each square. Think GPS however with words to determine a location instead of an intricate jumble of numbers, which, if entered incorrectly, could lead you– literally– up the garden course.

The outcome, he keeps in mind, is that numerous people download it and after that say: “I hope I never have to use it”. Till they find themselves on Ben Nevis in a blizzard, that is.

If the app has constraints, these are less on the tech side than on the side of users, according to What3Words marketing guy. Instead of see it as an everyday tool to report a water leak or a deserted supermarket trolley, state, users frequently view the app only as an emergency back-up.

The teams aspiration is to end up being a worldwide recognised address system, states Rhys Jones, who describes the difficulty of living without an address as “frustrating, hazardous and inefficient”.

Where the UK-registered app is really coming into its own is amongst the 4 billion or so people around the world who lack a quickly recognisable home address. What3Words looks for to encourage such services, by making the app complimentary to charities, development firms and emergency situation services. The latter is specifically relevant, as Mongolias postal service is the first in the world to formally adopt the word-based address service.

Mongolias postal service is the first on the planet to officially adopt the service. Image: What3words.

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The teams aspiration is to end up being a globally recognised address system.


What3Words is now offered in 47 languages, from Afrikaans and Arabic to Malayalam and Mongolian. The latter is especially relevant, as Mongolias postal service is the very first on the planet to officially embrace the word-based address service. It matches, not replaces, the existing system.

That delivery giants such as Hermes and global carmakers Mercedes and Ford are integrating the option into their navigation systems has actually assisted prove its guts– along with generating the money to keep operations growing.

Where the UK-registered app is truly entering its own is among the 4 billion approximately people worldwide who do not have an easily recognisable home address. Image one of Ugandas biggest refugee camps, where the apps Scrabble-like word patterns are ensuring that medical aid reaches the proper clients doors. Or the taxi service in Delhi that permits females to step confidently into a cab, knowing it will drop them right on their doorstep.

Rhys Jones stresses that just services that benefit commercially are charged. This prevails, he points out: “ride-hailing apps, logistics companies and cars and truck companies with satnav systems all buy access to address and GPS info. Our service model offers the resources needed to continuously improve What3Words and develop items that work for all our users, whether they pay us or not.”.

One open standards proponent, Terence Eden, has also questioned the cultural neutrality of using words to determine areas. “Numbers are (mainly) culturally neutral,” he has stated. “Words are not.”.

The doorstep of 10 Downing Street is identified by Slurs.This.Shark. Image: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/MOD.

What3Words seeks to motivate such services, by making the app totally free to charities, development firms and emergency situation services. (Fees are charged to the business users, who successfully purchase a licence to incorporate the software application into their systems). The United Nations is one long-term partner, incorporating the service into its own catastrophe- action tracking system.

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