1. Social
January 21, 2016updated 20 Jul 2021 3:57pm

This map lets you identify any 3x3m spot in the world with just three words

By Barbara Speed

Maps, as I’m sure we can all agree, are great – but they do have their limitations. They’re pretty shoddy at helping us navigate large bodies of green space, or the parts of the world where standardised addresses and mapping haven’t taken hold. 

What3Words, a new mapping app and website, claims that around 4bn people globally don’t have a usable address. This means they can’t receive deliveries or aid, and it hampers everything from meeting contacts to setting up a businesss.

That’s why What3Words is aiming to offer a radically new form of address, relying on strings of words, rather than numbers. 

The company’s founders simply divided the world into 57 trillion squares, each measuring 3m by 3m. Each one has been randomly assigned a set of three words, available in multiple languages. I’m sitting, for example, in nails.proud.dishes. If I wanted someone to meet me on a specific point on the road outside, I could tell them to go to froze.thick.dame. 

This decision to use words rather than numerical or digital information may seem backward-looking, but it is a way to ensure that this new method isn’t restricted to those with phones or technical ability. The map, with its three word combinations, can be used offline and locations can be transmitted orally, and reasonably memorably.

Standard memory tricks ask you to think of a story using the words you’re meant to remember – “the lake froze, but it wasn’t thick enough to stop the dame falling through”, for example. It’s far harder to remember streams of numbers, or even addresses.The numerical equivalent of the What3Words squares are two numbers with six decimal places, which makes one realise quite how simple the three words are in comparison:

Content from our partners
The key role of heat network integration in creating one of London’s most sustainable buildings
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale


The system is actually, in most cases, even more accurate than an address, as most buildings are locations are larger than 3x3m. The closest comparable technology is the “drop pin” feature offered by many apps, which allows you to send an exact location to a contact. But this ability is restricted to those transmitting and receiving information on smartphones, tablets or computers. 

Of course, the success of the What3Words system requires people to start using it en masse – it’s not much use for you to send a friend a text saying “supply truth drips” only for them to have no idea what you’re talking about (it means “I’m on the Strand”, Luddite).

But it may turn out that we in the developed world don’t need what What3Words is offering it’s elsewhere that it could really make a difference.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
Topics in this article :
Websites in our network