What3Words: The App That’s A Real Lifesaver

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What’s the one thing you need when you’re completely lost in the Rocky Mountains? How about an app that can pinpoint your exact location to a 10ft x 10ft square? That may not have been your first answer, but for emergency crews across the U.S and Canada, it is.

What3Words divides the planet into 57 trillion squares, each with its own unique three-word code. Developed by a London, UK, based team, it has proved to be a vital tool with a whole range of uses.

The team has made it available for free for emergency services to use and what has spread like wildfire in the UK is now taking hold in North America. Departments across Los Angeles and parts of Arizona have adopted the technology while wide swathes of Canada have taken it on too. 

Critically, the app is also available for free to the public. People who live out in the wilderness or are planning to escape to the countryside for a hike are being encouraged to download it as a safety measure. 

One couple in England got hopelessly lost on a hike through woodland and ended up calling the police after a number of hours. The first thing the call handler did was to get them to download the app. After downloading, they were able to get a three word code corresponding to their location and text it to an emergency number. Within a minute the police were able to pinpoint their exact location and were able to swiftly get a rescue team to them.

Development

It all started when the developer, Chris Sheldrick, who lives in rural England, became frustrated that mail orders weren’t being delivered to him. His house’s zip code (or postal code as it’s known in England) did not direct delivery trucks to the house and he would have to flag down the drivers. 

Sheldrick commented:

I tried to get people to use longitude and latitude but that never caught on. It got me thinking, how can you compress 16 digits into something much more user friendly?

“I was speaking to a mathematician and we found there were enough combinations of three words for every location in the world.”

Wider Use

The app is now used by the Mongolian postal service, and Lonely Planet utilises the tech for pinpointing points of interest.

What3Words has also had its profile boosted recently during the pandemic. Scores of small businesses have found it invaluable as they’ve been delivering their products during the recent lockdown. As a result, the app has seen an 833% increase in its e-commerce usage in the past 4 months.

Rival Tech

Google has developed something similar, Plus Codes, which uses 10 digit alphanumeric codes to identify locations. The critical difference is that Google’s version is open sourced which means other companies can build it into their own software or service. 

“Open addressing standards will be critical in helping the billions of people worldwide who either don’t have an address, or have one that is difficult to locate,” a Google spokesperson said.

Irrespective of the rivalry, with apps that can help emergency services, businesses, postal services, and individuals alike, it’s hard to see a downside. 

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