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Every Three-Metre Square on the Planet Now Has a Unique Address

What3words assigns each area a three-word locator. I was born in thinnest.coverage.intimate.

I was born in thinnest.coverage.intimate, and grew up in charm.pits.forgotten, bongo.flamenco.stole, and overtones.wiring.segregates. Forgive the personal history, but it seems as good a way as any to explain the concept behind What3words, an innovative global addressing tool that could have far-reaching implications for communicating location the world over.

The concept is simple: Take the world and split it into three-metre squares—57 trillion of them, to be precise—and assign each a unique, three-word descriptor. The combinations above were my place of birth, and the first three houses I lived in.


The system is underpinned by an algorithm, rather than a weighty database, containing 25,000 words across nine languages (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, German, Turkish and Swedish). These word lists go through multiple processes before arriving on the final three-word combination.

Screenshot of the Vice UK office, address ""

Homophones aren't included, and similar words are shuffled to be purposefully far apart (geographically speaking), so table.chair.lamp puts you between Wollongong and Sydney in Australia, while table.chair.lamps is just north of Atlantic City—the idea being that voice recognition would also pick up your current location, and factor that into which destination you are more likely to have meant. What3words is currently competing in Richard Branson and Virgin Business' Pitch to Rich competition, trying to secure up to £250K in funding, with much of this investment intended to develop this voice recognition.

The size of the tool at just under 10 MB means that other apps could also use it to augment their own mapping or navigation without too much trouble.

Cofounder and CEO Chris Sheldrick claims that while major cities are well addressed, the majority of the world isn't (75 percent is the figure on the company's website, based on numbers in a Universal Postal Union report). "We want to be everybody's partner, with the long term picture being for other mapping and navigation apps to licence the technology," he told me. "Yes, it's a technical solution, but it's very simple and very real-world in its application."


You can see how What3words could be taken up by music festivals to help on-site navigation.

So what's the point? After all, the world is building up, not out, particularly in areas of high population density. What3words works on surface area alone, so multiple people in Elephant & Castle's 40-storey Strata Tower in London have the address hopes.thin.softly (apt). At the moment, data regarding height or altitude isn't included.

It's really when you look at examples of areas with an inefficient address system that the idea comes into its own. The major case study that What3words has enacted is in the Brazilian favelas, home to 11.5 million people. Both Google and Microsoft have made attempts at mapping the favelas, but a quick look at Brazil's largest favela in Rocinha, Rio De Janeiro, reveals only a few streets.

Image: What3words

Logistics company Carteiro Amigo, which works in the area, claims to have mapped closer to 3,000, and has partnered with What3words to provide unique addresses to thousands of residents who were previously invisible. Things like receiving mail, or applying for jobs where an official address is needed, suddenly become easier. This is not a problem specific to less developed areas: Dubai has began to work on its poor addressing system in 2013, using a similar principle to What3words by providing each building with a 10-digit code corresponding to a geo-coordinate.

This same principle could be applied to hundreds of other scenarios, although the long term success of What3words does hinge somewhat on the willingness of other apps to utilise it.

A less altruistic example perhaps, but you can see how What3words could be taken up by music festivals to help on-site navigation. In rural areas too—I crashed a car on the A483 just past Llanbadarn Fynydd in Wales in January. Had the accident been more severe, being able to tell emergency services I was at unwound.incoming.moss could have gone some way to putting my mind at ease.