What3words Is A Clever Way Of Communicating Position Very Simply, But Do We Really Want To Create A Monopoly For Location Look-ups?

from the word-in-your-ear dept

The BBC News site has one of those heart-warming stories that crop up periodically, about how clever new technology averted a potentially dangerous situation. In this case, it describes how a group of people lost in a forest in England were located by rescue services. The happy ending was thanks to the use of the What3words (W3W) app they managed to download following a suggestion from the police when they phoned for help. W3W’s creators have divided the world up into 57 trillion virtual squares, each measuring 3m by 3m (10ft by 10ft), and then assigned each of those squares a unique “address” formed by three randomly-assigned words, such as “mile.crazy.shade“. The idea is that it’s easier to communicate three words generated by the What3words app from your position, than to read out your exact GPS longitude and latitude as a string of numbers. It’s certainly a clever approach, but there are number of problems, many of which were discussed in a fascinating post by Terence Eden from earlier this year. The most serious one is that the system is not open:

The algorithm used to generate the words is proprietary. You are not allowed to see it. You cannot find out your location without asking W3W for permission.

If you want permission, you have to agree to some pretty long terms and conditions. And understand their privacy policy. Oh, and an API agreement. And then make sure you don’t infringe their patents.

You cannot store locations. You have to let them analyse the locations you look up. Want to use more than 10,000 addresses? Contact them for prices!

It is the antithesis of open.

Another issue is the fact that the physical locations of addresses are changing in some parts of the world:

Perhaps you think this is an edge case? It isn’t. Australia is drifting so fast that GPS can’t keep up.

How does W3W deal with this? Their grid is static, so any tectonic activity means your W3W changes.

Each language has its own list of words, and there’s no simple way to convert between them for a given location. Moreover, there is no continuity in the naming between adjacent squares, so you can’t work out what nearby W3W addresses are. Fortunately, there are some open alternatives to W3W, many of them listed on a page put together by the well-known OpenStreetMap (OSM) group. OSM also points out the main danger if W3W is widely used — Mongolia has already adopted it as an official addressing system for the country:

What3words is fairly simple from a software point of view, and is really more about attempting establish a standard for location look-ups. It will only succeed through the network effect of persuading many people to adopt and share locations. If it does succeed, then it also succeeds in “locking in” users into the system which they have exclusive monopoly over.

Given that problem, it seems questionable that, according to the BBC story, the UK police are urging “everyone to download a smartphone app they say has already saved several lives”. Since when has it been the police’s job to do the marketing for companies? Moreover, in many emergencies W3W may not be needed. Eden mentions a situation described given by a W3W press release:

Person dials the emergency services
Person doesn’t know their location
Emergency services sends the person a link
Person clicks on link, opens web page
Web page geolocates user and displays their W3W location
Person reads out their W3W phrase to the emergency services

Here’s the thing… If the person’s phone has a data connection — the web page can just send the geolocation directly back to the emergency services! No need to get a human to read it out, then another human to listen and type it in to a different system.

There is literally no need for W3W in this scenario. If you have a data connection, you can send your precise location without an intermediary.

That seems to have been the case for the people who were lost in the forest: since they were able to download the W3W app, as suggested by the police, a Web page could have sent their geolocation to the emergency services directly. Maybe that boring technical detail is something the BBC should have mentioned in its story, along with all the heart-warming stuff.

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Comments on “What3words Is A Clever Way Of Communicating Position Very Simply, But Do We Really Want To Create A Monopoly For Location Look-ups?”

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MathFox says:

Re: Re:

The curvature of the Earth poses a small problem; at higher lattitudes (closer to the poles) there are more seconds of longitude required to get to a 3x3m area. The idea is clever; anyone with a basic grasp of mathematics and programming can implement the algorithm. But he/she is very likely to come up with a different division of the Earth.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If one insist on having it exactly 3×3 meters (I don’t know enough about it to say how big the error would be at worst) than I am quite confident that the problem of finding out how much you need to correct for what latitude is already solved. So then it’s two steps: First normalize the latitude to a 3m scale and then use that scale to chose the word at the right position. I highly doubt that the first step would make a mathematician sweat.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t see any statements that the algorithm is prohibitively complex. The primary issue is that it is proprietary – to get the 3 words W3W uses, you have to be locked in to a W3W ecosystem and pay W3W.

The article highlights that several opensource options exist. The article is concerned not for technical complexity, but Monopoloy lock-in, and questioning why the police directed the individual to W3W as opposed to an open source solution or utilize the capabilities of the phone to share location data directly.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I assume the idea is to make it as idiot-proof as possible. You’d be amazed at how clueless some people are with the tech they use every day, especially in stressful situations, and asking them to do something they likely do a lot (installing random crap) will be easier than asking them to do something they’ve never done before (accessing GPS data).

So, asking them to download an app and read 3 words from it is going to be easier than trying to get them to send the location otherwise. The already suggested automatic submission through a webpage would be even easier, but I’m guessing that it would result in warning popups and permissions screens that would confuse the already confused.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I assume the idea is to make it as idiot-proof as possible.

But phones already have a feature for this. When you dial emergency services, it overrides the privacy settings and sends a full GPS location. There’s no need for the user to have a data connection or waste time downloading an app or typing a web address.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The intended use case does not appear to be with emergency services, but to share a location between friends, acquaintances, or even relative strangers (meet up groups) in a simple format where straight GPS coordinates might be intimidating to the general public. Emergency services only is coming up because recent acts have related it to government approval of the proprietary algorithm over open source options, entrenching a proprietary player.

As for texting, Precision GPS is easy to transpose and throw off your location, as you need 4-5 decimal places to give a good positioning for others. E Mail might work, assuming a person is both willing to understand how to do that and not panicking. W3W and similar systems are easier for large portions of the population to handle, and really they should be able to get the gps data from the phone, as noted by others.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: if you can download an app

Is not an even easier solution to just open up google maps (or your map site/app of choice) and use that to work out where you are, especially in the case of the group that got lost in the woods who didn’t seem to be injured, which would then save the emergency services to help someone who was injured rather than just lost.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: if you can download an app

Even better, carry a paper map and a compass, they work long after the phone batteries have gone dead.

That said, I know someone who spent a night walking in circles, round the mountain at a constant altitude. They didn’t have the sense to keep going downhill until they met a road or river to follow.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 if you can download an app

Not in the lake district, especially if you consider a bridge and road to be part of civilization. Further, it will stop you walking in circles once you are on flatter ground, where determining downhill is not so easy. Once you find a road, you can follow that. Also, while on the mountain, so long as you use your ears and brain, it will tell you where the steep places and edges are, by the noise of the water.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: if you can download an app

That is a point made when sharing data to emergency services. But the main use case for the app seems to be sharing a location to other people, either your current location or a place to meet up. I can think of a few times where a 3 word gps tag would have been much more useful than the directions I was forced to give to find a location in a park or other open space where a street address is less than useful.

Pete Austin says:

To see GPS Coordinates on your iPhone

  1. Make sure that Location Services is ON. Navigate to Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services -> ON
  2. In the list of apps under Location Services, make sure Compass is "While Using" (and check whether there are any other apps that you want to set to "Never").
  3. Whenever you open the Compass app, you can see your GPS coordinates

Please could someone post the equivalent for Android

Dave W (profile) says:

Bespoke addresses for money

Its a great idea, but they will attempt to monetise it by letting people choose their three words for their company location.

The plan will be to get it adopted widely enough in a territory, then start pushing companies to pay to have specific words reallocated and chosen for them.

I would bet a shiny US dollar (do you still have those in coin?) that attractive 3 word addresses – are already reserved for sale – like licence plates.

Notice how the format is like a web address? I bet if you wanted your entry on the database changed to http://www.XYZ.com then money would need to change hands.

steve (profile) says:

The stupid thing is that we already have a grid system for the UK, the OS map reference. This is better than an alternative as the main outdoor paper maps used for the UK are the same, so everyone is using the same system, and it doesnt need a charged device.

The problem is that people have phoned 999 and they have no idea, and demand a postcode, which is totally useless off the road network, and here we are with yet another incompatible system.

tom (profile) says:

The real answer is to make sure the 911 system(or local equivalent) can automagically obtain the GPS location from the calling device. No app needed. Call 911, the GPS location pops up on the screen.

Oddly, this was the reason given for mandating that all phones had to have GPS capability. Then the mandating authorities failed to update the 911 systems to take advantage of the GPS data.

Anonymous Coward says:

What the?

I guess I’m entirely too used to traipsing around in forests. If you’re lost in a forest, and you’re still getting cell phone coverage, you can’t be THAT badly lost. Even without GPS: what cell tower are you connected to? Start looking from that point.

And why can’t you send the rescue party a text with your GPS coordinates? It’s not like you can’t take all the time you need to enter them in correctly.

or, you know, look up your GPS location on a map and then walk out?

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

But the user doesn't need to do any of this...

I’m really lost as to why any of this was even necessary. I helped work on the services that automatically provide emergency services with your devices exact location when you call them here in the US. Is this only an issue in other countries?

Even if there were some privacy concern you could just ask the person permission to request their location from their provider and record the conversation. There should never be a need for the caller to have to know how to look this up in any form.

Slow Joe Crow says:

I have a free app on my Android phone that gives latitude and longitude from the built in GPS and I can probably get UTM. There’s no need for a cutesy proprietary app and shame on the police for making lost people download it.
Of course if you are close enough to civilization to have a data connection you are also close to roads or other easily identified features. I don’t see W3W being of any use in a genuine wilderness with only radio and satellite coverage and no marked roads.

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