Written on 08/01/20 by Paul Oldham

Why we don't use What 3 Words

You may be aware of a company called What 3 Words and their product of the same name. Their big idea is that they've come up with a system of grid references that relies on three words to locate a point within a three metre square anywhere in the world. So "fish elephant emptied" might be a three metre square on top of Scafell Pike (it's not).

Superficially this seems like a neat idea. The usual system for locating somewhere worldwide is latitude and longitude and that's not particularly intuitive. In Great Britain we use Ordnance Survey grid references which are rather better. So the summit of Scafell Pike really is NY215072 and, if you understand the OS grid, you can locate it from that.

Scafell Pike summit cairn - rebuilt spring 2018
Scafell Pike summit - NY215072

But it's still not as "friendly" as What 3 Words so what's wrong with their grid? It's very simple: it's a closed system. So their company own the database of words which are mapped to locations and this is not Open Data so the only way of mapping three words to a location, or vice versa, is through their company and its servers.

Now I hope you can immediately see the problem with this. Twisted your ankle on a fell and need help and want to know your What 3 Words location so you can pass this on to emergency services? Well, for a start do you have a mobile phone? Is it working or did you break it when you fell over? Has it still got charge or is the battery flat? Assuming it is working do you have a data connection? And if you do are the What 3 Words servers online?

You need all these things to get a What 3 Words location1 and there are far too many potential points of failure here2.

With OS grid references on the other hand then so long as you know where you are on the map you've (hopefully) taken with you then you can simply read your grid reference off the map. It's easy to do and if you forget then every OS map has instructions printed on it to remind you how.

If you've got a GPS, either a dedicated one or a suitable GPS app on your phone (we use GPS Status & Toolbox) it's even easier as you can set up your GPS to show your location as an OS grid reference and you can just read it off that.

So that's three different ways, using different technologies from different companies, at least one of which will never run out of battery power!

Moreover the Ordnance Survey, although they invented the grid, aren't keeping it a secret so anyone can create products using it without payment to them. Our GPS mapping app for example shows locations as grid references. We couldn't do that using What 3 Words without using their server and, if we wanted to do that, we'd have to pay because they say that:

We've developed a business model that works for everybody. what3words is not open source and our focus is on having the right commercial solutions for different users: the system is free to use for most people, while companies that use the service to make money pay a fee. This approach ensures both the scalability and sustainability of the what3words solution.

And therein lies the very heart of the problem with What 3 Words: if they can convince enough companies to cough up to use their servers they might make a go of it, but what happens if they don't? How will they fund keeping those servers online?

They've now approached us twice, despite us making it very clear the first time that we're not interested so you do have to wonder how finding business customers is going for them ...

Anyway the bottom line is that we think What 3 Words is a dangerous road to go down for us or anyone else involved in ensuring people have a safe walk so we won't be using it for our site.

  1. We may be being a little unfair here, it looks like the mobile app may load the words for the language of your choice when you install it, but that means it will only work if the person you're sharing a location with has the same language selected and loaded into their phone.
  2. Since we posted this article someone has added another potential point of failure: that words are easily misheard over a phone call, so the person you sharing the location with might get a different location. For example "fish elephant emptied" is in Brazil ... but "fish elephants emptied" is in Canada.

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