Thanks to the likes of Google Maps and smartphones, the stress of finding somewhere is pretty much non-existent to most of us. You need never experience the cold sweat of trying to decipher a series of scribbled directions as you search for the street where your job interview’s taking place ever again.

However, how many times have you tapped in a postcode (or zip code), been guided to a location and had the words ‘you have reached your destination’  smugly uttered, only for you to look up from your phone to see no obvious entrance or, in some cases, signs of life? 

And that’s the rub…postcodes were never designed to offer a precise location, but rather to identify a group of properties or addresses, and a satnav will direct you to the center of it. In the UK alone there are 1.8 million postcodes, each covering about 15 properties – but in reality one can really be expected to identify anywhere between one and hundred. Zip codes are even worse, corresponding to address ‘groups’ or ‘delivery routes’.

That said, postcodes are still seen as the best way to navigate to a location thanks to their unique arrangement of letters and numbers that reduces the risk of heading to a similarly named road miles away.

But what if you could be even more precise than that? The obvious answer is to use GPS co-ordinates, but while they can be incredibly precise, their overly long and easily forgettable set of digits make them impractical for widespread consumer use. There is an alternative however.

3 word addresses

London-based tech firm what3words has divided the entire globe up into 3 x 3 meter squares (roughly 10 x 10ft) – that’s 57 trillion squares, and used an algorithm to assign each individual 3 x 3m square a unique three word address from a wordlist of 40,000 words. 

So for the London office of TechRadar where this piece is being written, the address would be ‘ideas.coach.string’, while a short wonder along the corridor to reception sees the address change to ‘breed.mason.arch’. 

The system has also been designed to reduce human error so similar word combinations aren’t nearby each other, while if you spell a word incorrectly, it will suggest the most obvious place. 

This is all done via the free app that lets you not only pin-point exactly where you are, but also share your location and enter a 3 word address, which you can then navigate to using the likes of Google Maps to get you to your location. I must admit I was sceptical about the whole idea of what3words until trying the app, but it really does work, and does it with far greater precision than I’ve experienced by simply using a postcode. 

For businesses use, there’s a fee, but it does make a good business case for itself. For instance, while the address for an office might lead you to the main reception, for many couriers, the entrance to the postroom could be on the other side of the building. Using a 3 word address then has the potential to cut down job times as you’re always arriving at the exact place you want to be and speeding up delivery times.

Outside the city, it also has benefits. No more struggling to meet friends at festivals or sporting events with sometimes patchy mobile reception and limited landmarks. Simply use the what3word app to pinpoint where you are and then send that address to them – the algorithm lives on the app and uses a GPS connection to locate your position, while the built-in compass can help guide you in the direction you need to go if your mobile reception is pretty iffy. 

Not only can it help you avoid a wasted afternoon wondering around trying to locate friends, but what3words is also being used by the likes of Festival Medical Services (FMS) at Glastonbury to provide onsite emergency healthcare thanks to its 850 volunteers.

Until recently the festival site was manually divided up into a 10,000 meter squared grid by FMS, with various named areas to locate people, but now uses the 3 word address system to help first responders get assistance quickly when needed. 

Further afield

With Ireland notorious for not having any form of postcode used in its addressing system until only recently, tourist offices such as Meath Heritage are now including 3 word addresses to various places of interest, while humanitarian organisations like NGO Gateway Health Institute are also taking advantage of the 3 word address system in South African townships.

Just outside Durban lies the township of KwaNdengezi, which with a population of some 54,000 people living in 11,000 self-made homes, makes it almost impossible to find a specific location or telling someone where you live almost impossible. 

While descriptive directions are the norm, for emergency services it often means having to stop passers-by for directions multiple times, with the average response time 2-3 hours at best. 

However, by helping residents discover and use their own what3word address (in some instances, even printing durable signs that can be used like house numbers), Gateway Health Institute is working with emergency services to dramatically reduce response times in townships. 

Not just restricting itself to English, what3word addresses are adding a range of languages. The idea being that users can use the app in their own language or the language of the country they’re visiting. 

To avoid confusion, no words are shared between language versions. Once they find a 3 word address in one language, users can switch languages and discover the 3 word address for that same 3m x 3m square in a different language.

When you live in one of the best addressed places in the world, it’s easy to overlook the need for more precise navigation, but what3words has the potential to give everyone in the world an address, however remote they may be.

  • Download an iOS version of the app here, and Android version here


Source: techradar – Gadgets
How three words could change the way we navigate the globe