“Snail.Bubble.Drums”: The app making poetry out of GPS co-ordinates
There’s poetry to dividing the entire planet into 57 trillion three-metre squares. If not in the act itself, then in the results, naming each of those squares an obscure permutation of three semi-random words. I’m typing these sentences, for example, sitting at “cuts.eagles.port”. If I move a couple of steps, I’ll be at “panic.latest.save”. Behind me is “snail.bubble.drums”.
What3words splits the Earth into 3 x 3m portions, and gives each of these squares a unique name. Think of it like GPS imagism, with a trio of easy-to-remember words translating to very specific locations. Download the company’s app or visit their site online, and you can find a three-word code for where you’re standing. Input another code, and it will tell you where in the world that is. “inspector.snoring.carrots”? That’s on the outskirts of Moscow.
“What that means,” says co-founder Chris Sheldrick, “is if I’m in Namibia and I want to communicate a location in the desert where I’m going to be later, I can look it up on the What3words app, give the words to someone else, they’ll type it in and we’ll both be looking at the same three-metre square.”
“Why would I need such a thing,” you mumble. “I’ve got a postcode.” Yes, well, a lot of the world doesn’t. Last year, Mongolia’s postal system announced it would be changing all of its address to three-word phrases. For a vast country largely inhabited by sparse, semi-nomadic populations, the postal system had its work cut out trying deliver letters to homes without street names or numbers. “Try to find someone moving around with their animals on a territory the size of Alaska,” the chief executive of Ard Financial Group, an owner of Mongol Post, told The New York Times.
Mongol Post changed its operations to What3words, making it the first national postal service to do so. Sheldrick tells me five other countries have since followed suit. The company has also been involved in helping the Philippine Red Cross to co-ordinate rescue teams and provide emergency supplies during natural disasters, such as in the wake of Super Typhoon Haima in October 2016. The appeal makes sense: when you have seconds to communicate your location, shouting “plausibly.blueberries.frantic” down the phone is easier than 10.106782, 123.576965, if a bit less sombre.
Elsewhere, in the informal settlement of KwaNdengezi in South Africa, the company partnered with the NGO Gateway Health Institute to make it easier for emergency services to find people in need – particularly women giving birth. The lack of a formal address system in KwaNdengezi’s network of 11,000 homes makes it very difficult for ambulances to find people during callouts. With 50% of women giving birth at home, and an average response time of between two and three hours, something was needed to address the problem. What3words brought in a sign-printing machine, installed it in the centre of a community, and had three-word signs made for locals to nail to their doors.
“They could call up the NGO and give the three-word address to them, and they’d know where they were,” says Sheldrick. “It’s incredibly appealing to people because, of course, in an emergency they want to be found.”
Although the benefits of locative phrases might be most immediately obvious in emergency situations, or places in the world without clear street addresses, the original idea came from a very different source. Sheldrick used to work in the music business, and found himself constantly frustrated by musicians who were unable to find where they were supposed to be.
“Everywhere we went in the world, every day, musicians got lost trying to find the entrances to buildings,” he explains. “It really bothered me. I tried to get everyone to use GPS co-ordinates and they were very resistant to it. So I thought, I’ve got to make something that’s musician-proof.”
A language-based system was the solution, and Sheldrick teamed up with Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Michael Dent to develop What3words in 2013. Since then, the system has expanded to encompass 14 different languages, with a team of human linguists employed to double-check each word being thrown into the soup. Homophones are an issue, for example, with the difference between “here” and “hear” being imperceptible when spoken down the phone. “In French it’s a little bit different, because there are so many homophones you wouldn’t actually have any words left,” Sheldrick notes.
Aside from homophones, there are also questions of where to place singular and plural versions of words (“lamp.table.chair” versus “lamps.table.chair”, for example). The company’s solution is to keep these locations far from each other, placing the former in Australia and the latter in the US. The logic is that keeping these separate will make it easier for a user to tell if they’ve made a mistake, although it does highlight the somewhat capricious nature of What3words’ orderings. GPS co-ordinates might not flow off the tongue, but they do have a clear order that can be calculated with the help of a good map.
What3words’ obscure system of word-trios, on the other hand, can’t be determined without the help of the company’s own copyrighted software. It’s not an open standard, and therefore bodies such as Mongol Post need to pay the company to license its tools. As a business, What3words expects to make money somewhere along the line, but it does put the onus on the company to maintain itself as an enabler of other infrastructures. What would happen to Mongolia’s postal system, for example, if What3words collapsed?
This question will become more pertinent if the company’s ambitions are reached. Sheldrick tells me that “in the developed world, as well as the developing world, everybody is becoming more interested in precise locations”. He mentions autonomous cars and delivery drones as two examples of technology that would have a particular use for a quick and easy way to communicate specific locations.
“We’re moving into a world where you need to be very, very precise”
“When you’ve got no sheering wheel, it’s a problem if your satnav is just a little bit off,” he tells me. “Because normally you drive down the street and look where to go, but we’re moving into a world where you need to be very, very precise. The same with drones. You can’t just put a street address into a drone.”
Whispering “obey.kinks.bound” into your autonomous car might be one way to get to Soho Square, but it relies on What3words’ algorithms to match language to location. Not to mention the fact that if you switch the first two words, you may accidentally end up in South Australia. Sheldrick is right that precision will be essential to robotic navigation, but should the standards that form the foundations of those systems be owned by private companies?
For now, at least, What3words is offering a practical solution to problems facing many countries across the world. Forget autonomous cars: it’s human ambulance drivers that need to work out where to find people in need, and a simple-to-remember trio of words could be the difference between life and death. Whether or not that works for confused musicians is another case entirely.