Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

What3Words – Not.Quite.Right

August 3rd, 2015 by admin

Recently, just for fun, I have been examining innovative grid offerings from What3Words, MapCode (TomTom-link) and Open Location Code (Google). What3Words seems to have caught the most attention, and in this blog I will present my thoughts about this specific effort at creating a more useful map grid for addressing. This is a really long blog. If you don’t have the time to read it, skip to the bottom section titled And Now a Word From Monty Python – it skips the details, but will give you the gist of my evaluation.

Three notes to start this off. First, the commentary that follows is not focused on detailed aspects of geodesic discrete global grid systems or their function as data structures. We are concerned here with simple location encoding systems, often called “finding grids” that can be used to provide an indication of the position of something, somewhere. Second, I do not intend to rehash the grids that have survived the test of time, other than to comment that there are a number of very useful grids that can be used for purposes of “finding.” Third, in an attempt at brevity, I am going to cut a lot of corners involving map projections, geoids, tessellations and other interesting areas and avoid discussions of theory that would leave you begging me to stop. Instead, let’s look at some basic notions involved in geographic grids, and then examine What3Words and what it (and other recent grid development efforts) may be trying to accomplish.

Map Grids – What’s involved?
At its basic level, the effort involves computing a grid comprised of cells relatively uniform in size that are used to tile, with no overlaps and no gaps, the area of geography in which you are interested. The coordinates defining these grid cells might identify the corners of a cell or they might identify the center of a cell. The method of annotation aligns with the goals of the producer of the grid.

Many grids that have been developed have been associated with efforts by militaries or other government agencies around the world interested in finding and naming locations in which they have or may field operations. Most of these efforts designate individual map grid cells by using short-codes that 1) avoid the need for users to be fluent with latitude and longitude, 2) eliminate the use of positive and negative grid values, and 3) do not require a detailed understanding of how the grid system was created.

“Finding” grids can be global or a local
In order to create a map grid one needs to decide the scope and parameters of the problem being solved. For instance, if you create a city street map designed to operate independently of other maps (i.e. other geographic areas); you might be satisfied by creating a local grid that bounds and applies only to the area covered by the map. Often these types of grids create cells are identified by coordinates called “bingo-keys,” as, reading a map index accompanied by local coordinate reference sounds like someone calling a bingo game, “A-29, I-32, etc.” Local grids should not be taken as meaning limited in extent to small areas. For example, the Township and Range system that exists only in some areas of the United States is defined on the basis of numerous, local baselines and principal meridians, but functions as an integrated land recording system across large swaths of the country.

Of course, another person might map the same area described above in the local street map example and decide that the geography involved should be represented as part of a global referencing system. In this case, the need for this map to integrate with the geography of the rest of the world is deemed of paramount importance to the developer of the grid.

Deciding whether a “finding” problem is local or global depends on your goals for the system, how you intend the grid to be used, and your plan for implementation and popularization of the grid. However, creating a global grid benefits from considerations related to how the new system could integrate with, or, possibly, replace existing grid systems. Unless the new grid provides a desirable functionality that existing grids do not, it is unlikely to be adopted by enough people to ensure its continued existence. Instead, it may be viewed as an unnecessary, duplicative addition in a field already crowded with worthy alternatives.

Grid Coordinates
As noted above, grid systems require a method for describing the location identified by the grid. In many cases these are reported in the form of linear or angular quantities that designate a position that a location occupies in a specific reference system. Coordinates from grid systems can be considered to serve as addresses. In its simplest form an address can be thought of as an abstract concept expressing a location on the Earth’s surface.

Two important questions follow. What does the creator of a grid mean when they use the term address to describe the locations in a new grid system? Second, how will commonly used existing addressing systems handle the form of address generated by the new grid? For example, from the perspective of a postal service an address might be defined as being: mailable, deliverable, locatable, and geocode-able. For some grid designers, locatable may be the only criterion of importance. For others, the address requirement might include the notions of it being hierarchical and topological. The notion of hierarchical can be seen in the address form used by go2 systems based on a long line of patents dating from 1996 (“Geographic location referencing system and method,” Patent number: 5839088) that in one embodiment, provides a hierarchical address in the form US.CA. LA.14.15. Other grids system coordinates may allow one to discern useful information about the relative distance and direction between coordinate pairs, thus providing a useful relational context to the “finding” problem.

So what is what3words?
On its website what3words (w3w) describes itself as, “… a universal addressing system based on the 3mx3m global grid. Each of the 57 trillion 3mx3m squares in the world has been pre-allocated a fixed & unique 3 word address.” On the same page of their website, the company indicates its opinion that the world is poorly addressed and that w3w provides a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3m x 3m square anywhere on the planet. It claims that the grid cells are, “… far more accurate than a postal address, and much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates.”

The ability to remember three words, as opposed to remembering a long pair of spherical coordinates is at the heart of the w3w system. W3w appears to be trying to introduce a system of geographic coordinates into widespread “public use,” as opposed to the more limited scientific and technical user populations associated with the use of many other geographic grids.

Example forms of the w3w coordinates are as follows: “remote.sun.palms,” ” feast.grab.bride,” or “madness.tags.curious.” As a further example, there are approximately 100 3m x 3m cells that fall within the boundaries of the property containing my home. If I enter my postal address using the w3w website, it appears to select a cell that is coincident with the center of the roof covering my abode. However, I could choose the coordinates representing any of the cells on my property as my w3w address. Presumably driveways or front doors might be a preferred choice for those presented with a large number of cells that could be used to identify the location of their home or business.

W3w is neither hierarchical nor topological. Any of the triplets used by w3w to identify a grid cell reveals nothing about the geographic relations between specific locations. In addition, w3w currently does not appear have a vertical component or any other method of ensuring precise addressing for multi-unit locations. I guess that people living in the same corner of a multi-level building might have the same w3w address and delivering anything to them might be a real puzzler. I suppose that’s part of why topology is so important in many addressing systems.

The approximately forty-thousand word English-language vocabulary used to identify the cells has been designed to avoid words that might be considered impolite or upsetting when combined with others. For example,” dogs.tinned.cats” is shown to identify a location in Japan, but the combination of words “dogs.eat.cats” or any related variant does not appear in the system. Singular and plural forms of words are included. The algorithm employed was designed to ensure that similar three-word combinations do not occur in the same geographical area. A variant form of a three-word combination used in one location (e.g. the use of plural form of one of the words in the coordinate triplet) might be used to describe a location on another continent.

Next, there are multiple language versions of w3w, although it appears that English is used in all versions for representing locations in the oceans and seas of the world. The triplet of words used to describe a specific land-cell using English bears no relationship to the three-word coordinate for the same cell in any other language, although these multiple representations point to the same world coordinate when analyzed by the w3w software. If you compared your w3w destination coordinates with someone who had used another language version of the grid, you both might be headed to the same destination, but, lacking a software application, would have no idea that the two seemingly unrelated grid cell designations were describing the same exact location.

As an aside, note that there appears to be some size parameter in work in naming locations in the ocean. While blank sections of water are named in English in all language versions, modestly-sized islands, such as Reunion Island, currently in the news, are covered with grids cells using words from the language version being used (e.g. French words if you use the French language version of the product). However, smaller islands (such as Flat Island and Round Island to the northeast of Reunion) are named in English, even when using another language version of the product. In further examination of this issue, I note that the Spratly Islands, involved in a territorial dispute between China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are named using triplets of English words regardless of the language version of the product that is used. I Guess there might not be a strong appetite for the use of the w3w grid by China unless the naming algorithm is altered a bit.

The three words chosen as a coordinate for a location normally represent the center of the cell. These points, at least theoretically, “…will be within 2.12. metres from any adjacent square with a w3w address.” (Robert Barr –What3Words Technical Appraisal* is available here ). Barr further states that the w3w address is already a geocode (p. 16) and does not suffer from the problems associated with the geocoding and reverse geocoding process.

How about that? The w3w triplet is actually a pointer to the latitude/longitude grid that makes the system possible – but you must have already guessed that relationship.

In order to use w3w a user needs to have access to the w3w website or an app that uses the system. That means in order to identify their location and find the relevant grid address they need a computer, or a smart phone, or access to these types of devices and, at some point in the process, access to an Internet connection. The person hoping to find their w3w address needs to be able to point to their location on a map to select the grid cell that is going to be used to represent their location and whose coordinates will be used as their address.

If I had never seen an online map or an aerial image identifying my location on one, it might be a pretty hard task to accomplish. As a matter of fact even people who have had access to digital maps and satellite imagery often perform very poorly when attempting to use these types of spatial displays for purposes of locating features in the real world. What this means is that the adoption of w3w may be slowed by its users ability to access the required technology, as well as the abilities of users to locate their homes and businesses using the w3w platform. In addition, intervening opportunity make take its toll since the required technology can be used to solve the “finding problem” using alternative means.

In any event, after having identified the location of my home or business, I would need to remember the three-word combinations used to represent them. Of course, without access to the w3w software, no one else can determine if they are near me solely on the basis of the three-word coordinates. Nor can anyone help me out by referring to, say, a nearby address if I cannot quite remember my sequence, since w3w word-triplets are randomly connected to geographical space in the w3w system.

So, let’s recast the story. W3w grid cells are created based on lat/lon and then identified with unique three-word combinations. In order to use these “addresses” the three-word combinations point to a lat/long coordinate pair that can be used to tie into typical mapping and routing systems. Yikes! Just what benefit does w3w provide?

W3w seems to make a great fuss about the memorability of their three word triplets triumphing over the difficulties in using lat/lon coordinates. In other words, the w3w coordinates could be considered as a simple mnemonic for representing a location in a table that contains lat/lon.

Although I have never tried to memorize coordinate pairs, I agree that lat/lon coordinates might be hard to remember. Of course, so is memorizing and retaining the correct form of a random concatenation of three-words from a forty-thousand word dictionary that creates approximately 57 trillion unique variations of these coordinate triplets.

Perhaps more to the point, I cannot remember the last time I focused on remembering a specific lat/lon coordinate. However, I use lat/lon almost daily, but this action has been made opaque by mapping and finding technology. In my daily life, I no longer need an address for others to find me. I can call up a Google map and by tapping into my GPS chip it can calculate my location and tell others how to find me.

Indeed, if I point at a location on a map in Google Maps, right click and query, “What’s Here,” I receive the lat/lon of that location. If I put that lat/lon in a signature block, it would allow people to find me who did not know my postal address. In fact, the finding action in the above example seem to roughly approximate the same procedure people have to use to find the three-word coordinates in w3w that define the a lat/lon coordinate.

While the concepts of “finding” and “finding grids” might be considered a global problem, providing addresses for individuals and their businesses may, in fact, be an opportunity that is best considered a local problem. Further, assigning global addresses using a global grid when the grid system contains no recognition of the political and administrative geography involved may be an insurmountable problem. While this may sound short-sighted, I can assure you that addresses, addressing and the “authority” to establish them, to standardize their form, and to mandate their use are political hot buttons everywhere in the world.

Finally, note that technology may be bypassing the need for their beneficiaries to understand the complexities of grid systems. Consider, the mobile phone. You probably can’t remember the long sequence of digits that can be used to call your friends. Depending on the contents of your address book, it may also know your location and the locations of everyone you call. In addition, your phone records everywhere you go on the Internet and in real life. The phone doesn’t seem to need w3w to accomplish this feat and neither do you.

And Now a Word From Monty Python

Consider the fictional scenario presented below. I thought about scrapping the blog above and using this skit instead, but decided it might be better to discuss some of the issues with w3w in more depth. However, the scenario below is a pretty good summary.

It was a cold and dreary night. I had no idea where I was, so I called Rescue Services.
The operator asked, “What Three Words. Please?”

I replied, “I Am Lost.”

“No,” was the reply. “We couldn’t find any results for ‘I.AM.LOST’.”

I retorted, “But, I.AM.LOST.”

“No, sir. We require three words, not four words.”

I replied, “MY.CHOICES.ARE?”

“No, we did not get any result for those three words”

I responded, “HELP.ME.OUT?”

“Sir, you need to use a three word combination that contains three words from the forty-thousand or so recognized by what3words.”


“No,” was the response followed by, “And, that’s WHAT3WORDS. Although if you choose to use French or Portuguese the dictionary is only twenty-five thousand words because they do not cover the oceans and seas. Are you asea?”

“No, but how do I get the correct what three words that locate my position?”

“Use a What3Words App to identify your location on a map and it will return the three words defining that position.”

“But if I gave you my What3Words, what would you do with them?”

“Convert them to lat/lon and run a route to you.”

I was incredulous – “WHY.DO.THAT? You can read my lat/lon directly from the GPS chip in my phone and you can JUST.FIND.ME!”


Encountering new maps grids is always fun and the thought that one might contain something productively innovate is always a big lure for me. I admire the team at w3w for attempting to solve a difficult problem. Unfortunately, convincing the world to use a new grid is a very difficult task, even when you might have created something better than that which already exists. While w3w is being effectively marketed, it is my opinion that is it is unlikely to be widely adopted. It lacks what I consider to be a fundamental innovation. Further, its utility as a map grid is constrained by the simplicity that makes its use appealing to many.

Finally, I am no more enamored of the new grids Map Code and Open Location Code than w3w, but for entirely different reasons. But this blog is already entirely too long.

Letters, we’ll get letters…..


Dr. Mike

*) Dr. Barr is an acquaintance and a professional of the highest caliber. His analysis of w3w is good reading and I recommend it to you. He appears to view w3w favorably.
**) It is my opinion that the w3w website software is not particularly well-disciplined. Its various language options appeared to me to be unstable when examined over several days using Firefox v39. I did not interrogate the website using any other browser.

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Posted in Authority and mapping, geocoding, geographical gazetteer, map coordinates, map grids, routing and navigation, Technology, what3words

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