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tech nomad

What3Words is quite a find

In Mongolia, the national postal service is using What3Words for deliveries.
what3words
In Mongolia, the national postal service is using What3Words for deliveries.

If you’ve ever been lost in an airport parking lot, unable to find your car; or if an attempt to find friends at a stadium has had you running your own marathon; or if Apple Maps has ever led you under a river and through the woods, you have encountered the limits of the modern address.

Every place has a location, but not every place has an address — and not every address does the job it’s supposed to. The address of a major venue, for instance, reveals little about the location of, say, a particular loading bay.

That was the precise problem faced by Chris Sheldrick, a music biz guy turned cofounder of What3
Words — a new global addressing system that hopes to become the new standard of where. What3Words breaks the surface of the entire globe into a grid of 57 trillion squares measuring three square meters each. A geocoder then translates the coordinates of each square into a sequence of three simple words separated by periods. Pretty.simple.stuff. (Which happens to be in a tree about 50 miles northwest of London.)

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And that simplicity is on purpose. Short strings of words are far easier to remember than cumbersome GPS coordinates or geohashes; and in both cases, human error doesn’t immediately reveal itself — i.e. if your coordinates are slightly off, your location will be, too. What3Words attempts to safeguard against this by scattering similar word combinations across geographically distant locations. So while the front steps of the Boston Globe offices can be found at belong.enter.visits, enter.visits.belong will drop you in a muddy field in Ross, Ohio. (Hope you brought your boots.) It also nixes homophones — so you’ll never end up “hear” when you should be “here.”

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For a massive, global grid, What3Words runs surprisingly light on code and data (allowing it to function with no network connection); and it’s a fixed, fully translatable system, making it uniform and stable for anyone who accesses it. This rigid simplicity has helped raise What3Words from experiment to a crucial tool everywhere from developing countries to disaster areas. (It’s also made it the butt of a few jokes. See: What3Emojis.)

In Botswana, What3Words has been used to install solar power panels; in Rio, it’s helping tourists find their rentals for the Olympics; in India, it’s bringing electricity to people in the slums; it’s delivering medicine in Cape Town. Just recently, Mongolia shifted its entire postal service to operate on What3Words.

It’s already been implemented into emergency response efforts against wildfires and health crises. (One 2014 brief for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Hashtag Standards for Emergencies,” singled out What3Words as an effective way to signal location during disaster situations.) It’s also increasingly being employed for large-scale asset management — from utility poles to street lights and road signs. At Glastonbury this year, What3Words was used to pinpoint injured festival-goers among the tents and puddles.

Though What3Words has already shown it can make itself useful, it remains to be seen if it can make itself universal. As it finds increasing integration opportunities with other services (like the photo-mapping project Mapillary and navigation apps like Navmii), What3Words has also met growing criticism for passing off a closed, proprietary system with a patented algorithm as an open, global platform.

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Still, it’s hard to envision a system better equipped to handle the increasingly on-demand, increasingly mobile specifics of e-commerce (and so easy to imagine the thrill of an Amazon drone loaded with Cottonelle descending from the heavens to your campsite). Whether it’s marking water points in remote Tanzania or just easing the ordeal of setting a meeting place at Water Country, What3
Words is an idea whose time has come — and it’s only just starting to find itself.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.