Addressing the World: what3words

what3wordsWhat3words set out to assign an easy to remember "address" to every place in the world. This system has divided the globe into a grid of 57 trillion 3 meter by 3 meter squares. Each square has been assigned a unique "address" consisting of 3 words. Infocore's address for example is daunting.result.lucky. There's a (randomly selected) Starbucks in Louisville KY at relishing.ballpoint.faxing.

What3words is based on latitude and longitude, and each 3 word square translates to lat,long coordinates. Lat,long coordinates are great for computers, but not human friendly says what3words. It is easier to remember 3 words.

You can explore the world using the what3words locator map in several different ways. I found it irresistible to look for familiar places and do some other poking around but I am admittedly a dork who still gets a kick out of satellite view. You can search for an address, you can enter 3 word combinations and see what comes up, and you can just pan and zoom in to an area.

parking lotThe big advantage to what3words is the scale of the grid - the very small sectors that have been uniquely defined. At 3m x 3m the kitchen and bathroom of your home have different addresses.

A parking space or a shrub can be precisely located. This unskilled parker has spilled out of the third.dummy.farming space and encroached on the builder.saying.vinegar cross walk.

What3words is ideal for remote locations. Hikers in the deep woods can summon help in an emergency. If a car breaks down on a lonely country road at night in a snow storm it can be located with ease and precision.

Ok, so this is pretty cool, right? Your cubicle at work has its very own unique address! Well, it does as long as your workplace is only one floor. Things fall apart in 3D, like with multistory buildings. What3words says there is currently no great need for a way to specify height, such as what floor an apartment is on. They recommend including that info as in "Apt 6, 5th floor, index.home.raft". 

Bummer. That dulls the gloss of this shiny system a bit. What3words says "... if and when height becomes helpful to specify, we have various options for including this information with the 3 word address."

Another downside, to me at least, is a limitation of random and unrelated "addresses". Knowing where you are doesn't help you find your way to where you want to go. If I'm headed for 550 Elm Street and as I am driving along I pass 510 Elm, then 520 Elm, I can figure out how to get to 550.

Even if buildings had their what3words address visible the way street addresses are, passing dont.stop.here and keep.on.going doesn't help me find went.too.far. What happens if your phone battery dies?

One interesting thing is that once you have the app on your phone it wll work without a data connection. A GPS signal is independent of an internet connection so an offline device can still pickup GPS coordinates to determine your current location. Then the software does the conversion to get the what3words address.

Despite its limitations, what3words provides some truly great solutions. It provides an address for every spot in the whole world. This is immensely valuable for remote and wilderness areas. 

Its also a great boon for densely populated third world places that have no addresses at all. Many countries in Africa have vast sprawling urban slums without even street names. The favelas of Brazil are another compelling example.

People living in those places are trapped because they have no address. An address is an almost universal requirement to establish a legal identity. Essential documents such as a driver's license, passport, national ID card, and the ability to register to vote are dependent on an address. In order to become empowered members of society, people must have an address.

We will continue looking at other addressing systems over the next few weeks.