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What3words app lets you accurately describe your location anywhere in the world

I’m at deputy.deal.necks. Send help! Photo: Patrik Lundin

Joseph Delves
2 Sep 2019

In the event of an accident, your phone might be able to help you locate where you are. But how do you share that information with the emergency services? Telling them you’re in a ditch, somewhere on a misty mountain between a clump of heather and a morose looking sheep will only get you so far.

Far better would be to send your exact coordinates. But would you know how to find them with your phone and could you make understood the 16-digits over a howling gale and with patchy reception?

What3words is an app that takes your location and transforms its coordinates into a series of three words. For example, the what3roads office in Ladbroke Grove beside the Westway has the coordinates of 51.520847, -0.19552100 and becomes: filled.count.soap.

Covering the entire world, it could be a great free addition to your phone, especially if you like to head out on more adventurous routes.

Dropped map pins aren’t always accurate and can be hard to share with the emergency services. Similarly, postcodes cover fairly wide areas. Street and place names are also not ideal, as they often exist in multiple locations.

After experiencing their own navigation nightmares, Chris Sheldrick and mathematician Mohan Ganesalingam wanted to find a way to describe a location as precisely as GPS coordinates, but easier for people to use. Creating an algorithm on the back of an envelope, they roped in another school friend, Jack Waley-Cohen, who had a background in translation.

The system they created has already helped contribute to one group of people being rescued, admittedly from the not-particularly-wild environment of Hamsterley Forest, in County Durham.

The system has benefits for a range of less serious uses too, including finding your mates at festivals or other events. Either way, the app is easily worth playing with, if only to see what random combination of words describes your particular location.

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