What3Words - A Unique Address for Everywhere on the Planet.

Here in the UK we have a great addressing system, with street names, house numbers, post codes etc. which works very efficiently... most of the time (I'll explain that in a moment). Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that over two thirds of the world don't have a comprehensive system of addressing and in some cases, very few formal addresses at all.

The UK system is not perfect... take for example Onega's office at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The UK Post Office changed our postcodes a couple of years ago so that where we used to be E14 0JY, we are now more correctly E14 0FN. All good and well, but many delivery drivers find that their satnav takes them to the wrong place because the database on the unit does not correctly locate the new (not so new now) postcode. Hence we have to brief everyone to use E14 0FN for mail (else letters may be sent back as 'address not recognised') but for car / truck / bike deliveries to use E14 0JY to ensure they get to the right place. Understandably couriers have anti-fraud checks for changes in delivery addresses so you have to go through a number of hoops there.

So what's the solution? Well, one would be to use GPS grid co-ordinates for all addresses, but these are not easy to remember and one wrong digit can take you to a different country. A very interesting solution has been designed and implemented by What Three Words - what3words.com . They have split the whole planet into a grid of 3 by 3 metre squares and developed an algorithm that allows for just three words to describe any of these uniquely. Simple but pretty awesome and some examples help to explain how it works.

Right now I'm at EMFCamp2016 which is a UK hacker / maker camp taking place in fields in the grounds of Losely Park in Surrey (thanks for letting us use your beautiful venue). There are a couple of thousand of us here learning, sharing and having a great time. Due to the nature of the event much is dynamic so not everything is where it is on the printed maps etc.  Empty fields don't traditionally have addresses but thanks to what3words, they now do.  You can browse the map on the web via https://map.what3words.com/  There is an app for the iPhone and Android smartphones to allow you to find your what3words address on the map and find where others are. So here at the festival, my tent is at finger.intelligible.ridge which you'd find in the app or at https://map.what3words.com/finger.intelligible.ridge and Milliways (the restaurant at the end of the universe - or in this case at EMF2016) is at glory.hill.reds etc. 

If you remember David Brabban's original 1980's computer game Elite, this included a universe of star systems created in 32k of computer memory, all generated by a computer algorithm to come up with names for all the planets etc. This allowed for much more scale and efficiency than if the planets were just named in a list (which also would not have been possible at the time due to memory limitations). The reason for mentioning this is that it's likely that this may have influenced the development of the what3words system. The 3 x 3 grid across the planet equates to 57 trillion squares. To store all these as a list with the three word address and co-ordinates that they relate to would take more capacity than the average hard drive has, even in a compressed form, so the solution is to have a word list and an algorithm to map words to co-ordinates. This is what what3words does and fits everything into 10 Mbytes of java code, which will fit happily  on most mobile devices / smartphones etc.

The software is accessed over a web API (web integration) and has been designed so that the words are:

  1. Safe dictionary words (you're not going to live at floppy.eagle.dildo but if you're at floppy.eagle.disco you are in Longbranch, Washington).
  2. Not easily confused with each other - meanings / variations carefully assessed to make sure like sounding words avoided.
  3. Similar word combinations are far apart so risk of confusion is minimal.

The system has been taken up globally and, for example, may well become the prime addressing system in Mongolia, giving many locations their first address ever. There are many, many uses for this and in the hobby of amateur radio could be used for location to be given accurately and quickly for competitions etc.  I bet Alan Turing wished that he'd have had what3words when he buried his silver bars, never to be found again!

So now at Onega we can give delivery drivers or visitors a new address. Our office covers a fair few of the 3 metre by 3 metre squares so we can give them Empire.reduce.nation , Monday.grow.thin , interestingly our accounts department is under puppy.costs.snake , meeting room is under major.home.foam and kitchen is heavy.flops.coffee . The entrance though is at worker.point.organs so now you know how to find us!

You can see Onega's Solar install at clown.liner.lamps ..

The apps are not perfect yet - they rely on location reported by your phone and when I go back to my tent here at Electromagnetic Field 2016, it is showing up as risks.casual.scout which is 3 squares away (despite having a good GPS location and clear sky). Thus I'd not use it for an exact food delivery to my tent just yet, but it would get the delivery bot (or person) close enough for calling.

The new system looks like a winner and one of those things that make you wonder why no one has done it before? The timing is right for this and for connecting the world as we slowly but inevitably become one connected society. 

What is your what3words address? 

Many Thanks to Daisy.r for the photo at the head of the page.