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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Filed Under: closed, database, location data, open, police
Companies: what3words


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  • identicon
    Manok, 22 Aug 2019 @ 11:09pm

    Why send a link so you can retrieve your W3W phrase?
    What happened to good old GPS?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2019 @ 11:56pm

    What is so complicated about the algorithm? You simply need a long enough list of (short) words and then you do a division to find the word to use. The only bit of work involved is to filter the list to remove complicated words that might confuse people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      MathFox, 23 Aug 2019 @ 12:46am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:17am

        Re: Re:

        If one insist on having it exactly 3x3 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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          James Burkhardt (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 8:32am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 12:15pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            to get the 3 words W3W uses, you have to be locked in to a W3W ecosystem and pay W3W.

            What stops someone who has the list from sharing a copy? It's well established that a list is not copyrightable.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:00pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              I think it's difficult and/or expensive to get your hands on the entire list.

              "W3W's creators have divided the world up into 57 trillion virtual squares... Want to use more than 10,000 addresses? Contact them for prices!"

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Draph91 (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 9:29am

        Re: Re:

        and the fact it only uses 40,000 words can be a problem as well, correct?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:04pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          and the fact it only uses 40,000 words can be a problem as well, correct?

          If I'm doing my math right, that allows 6.4 E 13 possibilities (40,000 cubed). Plenty.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Canuck, 23 Aug 2019 @ 11:31pm

        Math Fail

        At higher "latitudes", fewer words are needed (fewer 3x3m areas), so what's the problem?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 1:46am

    If you have a working phone with GPS, what's wrong with texting the GPS location to the police, or sending it to them in an email?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:07am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 10:13am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 10:44am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    stine, 23 Aug 2019 @ 2:25am

    if you can download an app

    What's the point of the three words? If you can download an app, you could surely download an app that reports its location automatically. If you're downloading an app to save your life, would you deny it permission to access your device's location?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 5:17am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 5:50am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Draph91 (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 9:28am

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

          Isn't the whole "river leads to civilization" an urban myth though?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 9:55am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 8:36am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pete Austin, 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:11am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:30am

      Re: To see GPS Coordinates on your iPhone

      Again, the issue isn't really getting the co-ordinates. The issue is getting a tech clueless person who's in panic mode to accurately communicate them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:38am

        Re: Re: To see GPS Coordinates on your iPhone

        An app to send the GPS data as a text, email or other message type should not be beyond the wit of man; or even a button to read them into your phone call, which hardly taxes voice generation.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dave W (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:16am

    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 www.XYZ.com then money would need to change hands.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    steve, 23 Aug 2019 @ 4:28am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tom (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 4:42am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 5:22am

    "It's certainly a clever approach"

    No, it isn't. It may be cutesy and emotionally appealing to some, and their marketing may be clever (though misleading), but the idea is certainly not clever.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 6:12am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Andrew Cook (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 7:23am

    W3W doesn't even have a monopoly. There's a competing service, What 3 F***s, that works just as well, has a much more appropriate vocabulary for emergencies, has a fractal pattern so you can choose an arbitrary level of precision, and is open source so people can expand and innovate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 8:39am

      Re:

      The existence of open source Competition was noted in the article. The issue is when the government is using the proprietary W3W, it makes it difficult to compete, as people would need W3W to interact with the government, and so a non-zero portion of the population will just use the government approved service.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2019 @ 8:49am

    Since when has it been the police's job to do the marketing for companies?

    Since that became part of the agreement to receive large numbers of Amazon Ring doorbells at greatly discounted rates.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Coyoty (profile), 25 Aug 2019 @ 12:05am

      Re:

      Since the police of the City of London, which is a corporation controlling a district of London and is not London itself, are used to charge and penalize people the companies accuse of of violating their intellectual property rights.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Cdaragorn (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 9:12am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Slow Joe Crow, 23 Aug 2019 @ 9:15am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 23 Aug 2019 @ 3:12pm

      Re:

      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.

      Yes, bu if you're in dense forest you could be 100 feet from a cell tower or road and have no idea.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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