Machu Picchu is at referred.grilled.folktales. Angkor Wat is at perfumed.deferring.hotspots. Notre-Dame Cathedral is at rashers.twice.balanced.

w3wEvery place on earth now has an easily communicable address, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the rural regions of Burkina Faso to North America’s expansive national parks. While many countries have street addresses, nearly 75% of the world has inconsistent, complicated, poor, or no addressing systems. Tired of wasting time trying to clarify precise locations, Chris Sheldrick was inspired to develop what3words. Along with Jack Waley-Cohen, he is seeking to change the way we communicate addresses with a universal geo-referencing tool that allocates a three word combination to every 3×3 metre square on Earth.


Navigation Made Easy


With a focus on simplifying navigation, what3words divides the entire world into a grid of 57 trillion squares, each of which is given a unique three word address. The entire system relies on an algorithm of only 5mb, small enough to fit on an entry-level smartphone. Using Google Maps or another navigation app on your device, it functions without a data connection and is available on computers or as an IOS and Android app.

The algorithm considers word length, distinctiveness, frequency and ease of spelling, and pronunciation in the choice of combinations. 25,000 to 40,000 dictionary words are pre-allocated to precise latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Awkward arrangements and large words are relegated to remote regions, and similar sounding combinations are shuffled around the world, with a ‘near me’ feature to correct transcription or communication errors.

what3words - 4It is available in eight languages, with more in development, which allows people to navigate in their native language, no matter where they are in the world. It is much easier, faster and memorable to use words instead of geographical coordinates and they’re more precise than ZIP or postal codes. While latitude and longitude is great for computers, what3words is for people.


Changing Environments


What3words is incredibly simple to use. It accepts voice and text input, so it is easy to pass on to friends an exact carpark location to meet at before a show or to map out scenic viewpoints on a hike. A secondary monetized layer enables users to purchase a OneWord for $2.75 a year, which effectively is used to brand a location. While addressing systems vary by country, what3words is working to provide consistency.

Addresses are required for job applications, bank accounts, deliveries, utilities, directing emergency services, and much more, which makes inadequate addressing not only costly and frustrating, but an impediment to growth and development. The use of what3words is ideal for rapidly changing environments where it is unfeasible to implement a conventional street-addressing system. It assists in navigation to locations without addresses or where more precision is needed, such as for deliveries or travelers searching for places off-the-beaten-path.

what3words-2Development workers can better manage locations for humanitarian assistance, and event organizers, performers and attendees can use it to easily map and share important locations. It makes locations are simple to share instantly across social media and messaging.1 The diverse applications of what3words make it an ideal addition to inadequate addressing and on its own where no addressing is currently in place.

The favelas of Rio De Janeiro, for example, have long been considered dangerous and excluded from city maps. While there have been recent attempts to map some areas, these efforts have been limited to places of potential economic opportunity. 2 And, without development codes, streets can easily be rerouted and buildings removed, changes that would be difficult to monitor on a traditional map.3 The system developed by what3words finally integrates the favelas into the city.


Critical Mass


The question is, will this system of geolocation catch on with the general public? Its effectiveness is premised on convincing people to change their location-sharing habits and widespread use. Current addressing is heavily ingrained within our cultures and practices. So far their apps have combined downloads of 30,000, but their focus is on having what3words integrated into existing business apps and services. Systems that already use the technology include Navmii, a navigation service with over 20 million users, GeoView, a geospatial image and data viewing application, and Bounce cabs.

With combinations like strawberry.fields.forever and seldom.ever.random, it is sure to attract attention, if not for its clever practicality. As stated by Wired, the “spot where you’re sitting right now has been transformed into a tiny kingdom, with its own name.”4

Explore what3words on their website, by downloading the apps or through any of their partner applications. Watch a video explaining the concept here.


This article was originally published in February 2015.







Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott is a writer, teacher and human rights advocate from Peterborough, Canada.

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