what3words: The geospatial advancement of the year?

December 3, 2015  - By 6 Comments
In this screen capture of the what3words app, the pointer is on mouse's head at the Magic Kingdom. That grid cell is named "perform.heckle.comfortable" and will not change.

In this screen capture of the what3words app, the pointer is on mouse’s head at the Magic Kingdom. That grid cell is named “perform.heckle.comfortable” and will not change.

Early this year, I wrote a short column about what3words, one of the exhibitors at the Esri Federal GIS Conference. Since then, I’ve run into a fair number of geospatial professionals who hadn’t heard about what3words. This month,  I’m doing a deeper dive on it because I believe it will become part of our daily lives in just a few short years.

What is what3words?

what3words is a global location system using tessellated grid squares of the entire Earth. Each grid cell is roughly 3 meters by 3 meters, and each cell is uniquely named using a simple three-word combination such as “fork.lamp.book.” On initial consideration, one would think, “So what?” — until you understand the ramifications.

First, this has already been done. More than 57 trillion 3-meter squares have been named using only 40,000 words.

Second, the system is non-hierarchal, and the cells have no adjacent relationship, so minor errors are dramatically obvious.

Third, unlike GPS lat/long, the United States National Grid (USNG), the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) or even street addresses, the three-word combinations are easy to remember and not easily misunderstood.

Fourth, the system is not just a 57-trillion record database; it’s a compact app (10 mb) that accurately generates the same unique name for each unique location with identifiers that are locked in concrete.

The what3words website has more information and a well-done video overview.

How did it come to be?

Surprisingly, what3words was developed not by a geospatial analyst, but by a musician who got tired of driving around trying to find the correct hotel loading dock or concert venue entrance using an address or verbal directions. Even GPS coordinates didn’t help, since it was easy to miskey numbers or misunderstand voice-relayed numbers. As a result, he and his team built an app that is easy to use, memorable and not error prone.

Early radio analogy

The system is so easy to understand that non-technical users can quickly adopt it. I believe that it will greatly speed communications, minimize mistakes, and reduce wasted time and mileage. To me, a good analogy is the World War I development of the phonetic alphabet.

In the early days of radio, voice communications were difficult and error-prone because of static, noise and garbled transmissions. To prevent mistakes, the military adopted a fixed list of words to help with aural identification of individual letters. The words were used for transmission of critical information such as map coordinates or to spell out words. (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, etc.) A similar mind/ear relationship occurs with what3words. Here is a well-written technical appraisal and amplification by Prof. Robert Barr.

Possible uses


Military

The implications for the military could be significant. When I served on a destroyer, one of my duties was Gunnery Liaison Officer, providing naval gunfire support for troops in battle locations. The 5-inch gunfire was called in by concealed spotters in the battle space. The coordination and conversion between the spotter location, the spotter’s point of view, and our offshore position and line of fire required significant calculations and diligence, because friendly fire was always a concern. Current developments in GPS and laser technology have helped significantly, but friendly fire mistakes from guns, missiles and bombing are still a constant concern. The use of what3words could be a simple and quick way to double check and prevent targeting friendly locations.

Another issue that was a problem for some military bases was addressing, or E911. Some bases had buildings identified by numbers corresponding to the sequence of construction rather than street addresses, so building 245 might be next to building 1842 and next to building 38 (I’m not sure if this is still an issue). With what3words, help could be directed to exact building entrances or to exact locations in remote parts of a base.

Disaster response would also benefit. In many disasters such as tornados or hurricanes, street signs and building were obliterated. What3words would provide “addressing” for relief supply drops and other needs.

The location of the helo deck on the battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia, is identified as "chew.sketch.hardly".

The location of the helo deck on the battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia, is identified as “chew.sketch.hardly”.

First Responders

Whether it be an air crash needing remote mountain rescue, a farm accident in a rural area, a capsized boat at sea, or a heart-attack victim in a shopping mall or home, response could be significantly faster with less chance for error. Even in urban areas, there are frequent stories of delayed medical aid because E911 street databases were not correct or updated with new construction. what3words provides complete location coverage and would serve as an easy and effective double check for street addresses.

Government and NGO activity

Some of you may be familiar with U.S. Census Bureau TIGER files and LUCA (Local Update of Census Addresses). I still can’t wrap my head around why census workers have to keep posted house numbers and street names confidential. Perhaps using what3words could provide a simpler, unclassified way to direct census workers. Additionally, many actions that currently use GPS may be better served with 3m grid locations, such as agricultural or environmental data collection.

Business

Mundane activities such as materials delivery to unaddressed construction sites or package delivery to homes and businesses will be more efficient. (Rumor has it that a prominent package delivery service is testing what3words.) Utility companies could locate cut-off valves, meters and other assets within 7 feet of their actual location. Meeting friends, getting an Uber pick up, or even having a pizza delivered to a specific bleacher location at a Little League game would become easy.

Second and third world

There are complex issues regarding the World Bank and economic development. To qualify for major economic development loans, countries have to demonstrate that they have viable property ownership and taxation system in place so loans can ultimately be repaid. We take our tax parcel system for granted, but may third-world countries don’t even have consistent and comprehensive street names and addresses. what3words can provide “addresses,” which could lead to more comprehensive parcel identification.

On an even more basic level, the majority of citizens in the world don’t have an address for simple deliveries. When I was in a rural part of Haiti, just getting some simple wood screws was an all-day trip and ordeal. I learned to really appreciate being able to take a quick run to Home Depot or get two-day deliveries at my front door from Amazon. Those “luxuries” don’t exist in many parts of the world, and their lack really cripples those trying to start or run a business. what3words gives everyone an “address.”

Try it

iphone-WDon’t take my word for it; try it yourself. Download the app on your smartphone (I’m using an iPhone, so others may be slightly different). Launching the app will display a map with your location and its what3words name. Click the “eye” to view an ortho image rather than a vector map.

If the padlock is locked, unlock it and you can move the map to different locations showing different what3words names. If you are sent a what3words location, you can click on the magnifying glass and type in the three words. The app will prompt “Near Me” or “Anywhere.” If there is no match near you, it will show possible options that come close by looking at alternate spellings or words. If you click “Anywhere” it will search the entire world for a match.

Once it takes you to the location, you can use Maps or Google Maps to get directions.

Other points

what3words has been adopted by many geospatial firms, including Esri. Available online or offline, anywhere in the world, the what3words locator can be available to the GIS team or customers across the entire ArcGIS platform. Since what3words is grid-cell layer, it may be possible to do map algebra operations on the cells in Spatial Analyst. I’m not sure there would be a benefit to that other than not needing to transform the list of affected cells.

what3words is available in several languages. The words are not simple translations, but developed for each language. Although the what3words team carefully scrubbed the words used to avoid offensive terms, I hope what3words doesn’t have to deal with lawsuits from individuals unhappy with the three-word identifiers of their location.

Conclusion

I predict that within a few years, our business cards will also include a what3words address. Simply put, I believe that what3words may prove to be one of the most significant geospatial advancements since Jack Dangermond spatially linked points, lines and polygons to a relational database.

what3words is going to save time, money and, most important, it’s going to save lives.

P.S.  If you read my March column reviewing Peter Zeihan’s book The Accidental Superpower, you may remember the importance Peter placed on 3D printing affecting the geo-politics of shipping manufactured goods from China.  If you haven’t seen the new CLIP technology 3D printers, you need to view this TED video to see how far the technology has progressed.

Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

6 Comments on "what3words: The geospatial advancement of the year?"

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  1. Jerome Lenczowski says:

    The possible extension of this naming convention with two added characters would provide decimeter resolution. The 3 word provides a 3mX3mX3m location. The first character subdivides this to a set of 27 1mX1mX1m boxes and the second character further subdivides each into a tenth of a meter, while adding a third character would provide centimeter resolution. Considering sensor resolution and surveying accuracy,such an extension would provide unique centimeter resolution in a full 3D environment.

  2. Anyone interested in understanding the limitations of W3W should read my blog on the topic from last August. Titled “What3Words – Not.Quite.Right” it is a deeper look at W3W than provided here. You can read my analysis at http://blog.telemapics.com/?p=589

  3. Art Kalinski says:

    Thanks Jerome. Good point but I hate to add complication to a simple system. However, it sure would add a powerful capability and satisfy some of our surveyor brothers who are already smarting from the fact that GIS is more accurate than most survey work. I’ll forward your suggestion to Chris Sheldrick the w3w founder. I believe they may have a plan for vertical identification but not for higher resolution.

  4. Roger Clayton says:

    I’ve always had a lot of respect for Art, but this really seems like he is just parroting the W3W spin machine. This is one of those companies that would have fit right in in the dot.com boom, marketing a “solution” to a non-existent problem. I’ve read many analyses of W3W and have tried it several times because people keep asking me about it and I’m with Michael Dobson in saying that it is Not.Quite.Right.

  5. Craig Roberts says:

    Art Kalinski provocatively wrote: ” …and satisfy some of our surveyor brothers who are already smarting from the fact that GIS is more accurate than most survey work.”, so I’ll take the bait Art. Can you tell me how W3W have geodetically fixed their 3m x 3m tiles to the Earth? Can you tell me how W3W have accounted for the tectonic motion of the plates? Can you tell me how W3W account for earthquake zones such as Christchurch and the Sendai district which experienced metres of Earth movement in seconds? Please don’t get me wrong. This is not an attack on W3W which I think is a very cool and very useful application for so many people, but I can’t let your comment go unchallenged. I would argue that many GIS professionals have little understanding of geodetic positioning at the cm-level especially when considering time dependent coordinate systems. Currently no GIS software can handle this, so please be careful of what you claim. W3W works fine for most of the Earth in the same way handheld GPS works fine; that is it is only good to 3 – 5m. Wading into the world of cms is a whole new ball game and indeed the realm of professional geodesists and modern professional surveyors….just sayin’.

  6. Tracy Cozzens Geospatial Solutions Staff says:

    From Art Kalinski:

    Of course Roger, Michael and Craig are correct. My enthusiasm for what3words ignored the fact that we should never equate precision with accuracy and accuracy with precision. What3words is only as accurate at the GPS or other navigation system used to locate the grids which could be off by meters or even float around. However, my enthusiasm remains. It reminds me of the early days of Pictometry metric oblique imagery which received some push back from the GIS community because it was not “photogrammetrically accurate.” Police and firefighters, who were not GIS professionals, welcomed the oblique imagery because it helped them quickly visualize and measure horizontally / vertically in ways that couldn’t easily be done with maps or ortho-imagery. Likewise, I believe that what3words is going to mitigate human communication errors locating emergencies or more mundane activities. So I’ll temper my enthusiasm with “Great.Not.Perfect.”

    — ART

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