Murky.Founding.Spoonfuls. While this seems like a string of random, poorly punctuated words, it’s a combination that saved an injured hiker on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.
Cornelia Gratzer was leading a hiking group through the red lichen-covered rocks along the northern tip of Flinders Island when she lost her footing, slipped, and broke her leg in two places. Unable to move, it fell upon Gratzer’s clients to organize a rescue.
Cell service on Tasmania is about as reliable as cotton is waterproof. Without a PLB or satellite messenger, the hikers walked 30 minutes before they found enough bars to call for help.
“When this 000 call [the Australian equivalent of 911] came in from Flinders Island, they’d actually provided our call taker with GPS coordinates,” says Nick Bradford, at Ambulance Tasmania. “But when we put those coordinates in our system, it put them in the middle of the Bass Strait—these people didn’t really know where they were.”
Ambulance Tasmania uses a Computer Aided Dispatch System (CAD) from a UK provider called Capita, which has access to a relatively new addressing service called What3Words. The service has divided the entire earth into millions of blocks of three by three square meters and applied a unique three-word address to each.
“We sent them a link in an SMS message to a cut-down version of What3words that takes the GPS coordinates they input and spits out a three-word address, in this case; Murky, Founding, and Spoonfuls,” Bradford explained.
With that information, Bradford’s team was able to pinpoint where the hikers were calling from down to a 3-square-meter radius and identify that they would need to dispatch the State Emergency Services as well a 4WD ambulance.
Founded in 2013, What3words was launched when Chris Sheldrick, who used to organize live music events, became frustrated with the imprecise nature of addressing, especially when it came to finding the specific entrances at venues. He started sending out GPS coordinates, but this didn’t solve the problem because of how unwieldy GPS coordinates can be.
“Even though they [band members] had written the coordinates down, when they punched it into a sat nav they might accidentally miss a one and a seven,” says Giles Rhys Jones the chief marketing officer at What3Words. “They’d still go to a hillside in Rome, but they’re an hour north of Rome, instead of an hour south. This culminated in one band phoning me to explain they’d just soundchecked to the wrong wedding because they got the coordinates wrong.”
Boil the string of GPS digits into a three-word block, however, and it’s much harder to mess up.
What3words has been adopted by organizations like Ambulance Tasmania in addition to 74 emergency services across the United Kingdom, and you can expect to see What3words making its way into the hands of emergency services in North America in the not too distant future. The Mongolian postal service uses it for all of its addressing, and even some automotive companies like Mercedes and Triumph motorcycles are beginning to build the three-word addressing into their navigation systems.
According to Jones, What3words is available in 44 languages, meaning each square has 44 different addresses.
“We start with a dictionary and we have language specialists go through each word,” Jones says. “They check each word and assign it a grade; they remove swear words and words that could be offensive. So we’ve removed words about alcohol from the Arabic version, for example, and I think the word turtle has been removed from our Malaysian version because there’s a myth about a turtle damaging the house of a god.
“Then, the algorithm distributes them [across the globe] and it puts shorter, more memorable words in places that speak that language. And then puts similar words incredibly far apart.”
Some critics of What3words see the distance between similar-sounding or related words as a fundamental problem with the service. However, Jones points out that it serves as a built-in error correction. When Bradford’s team was trying to find the hikers on Flinders Island, they experienced first-hand the utility of this feature.
“One of the words was, ‘spoonfuls’ and we were putting in ‘spoonful.’ The people at What3words have separated these similar sounding words by such a degree that ‘murky.founding.spoonful,’ is actually located off the coast of Russia.” Bradford explains. “When we typed in what we thought we heard over the phone, it brought up three options with similar sounding words, only one of which was in Australia — and put them on Flinders.”
Bradford also notes relaying a string of three words is also an order of magnitude easier than communicating a 14- to 16-number string, especially in a panicked state or in an area of marginal service.
No new service or standard comes without criticism, and What3words has drawn its fair share. Many have brought attention to the fact that What3words is a for-profit company — Jones says they don’t charge emergency services — and the algorithm that assigns the words is not open source. The addresses also don’t translate from language to language, for example ‘murky.founding.spoonfuls’ is pointage.embauchoir.adorons in the French version, which translates to pointing.shoetree.adore.
Relaying a string of three words is an order of magnitude easier than communicating a 14-16 number string, especially in a panicked state or in an area of marginal service.
When it comes to using What3words in the outdoors, the main critiques surround cell phone reception (or lack thereof) and the need for the app itself. But even without the app, it can be used with a cell connection.
“When we were struggling to find these people, we were able to send them an SMS from our CAD console with a link to a cut-down version — it doesn’t require you to download anything, and it doesn’t actually load the map or need much mobile reception,” says Bradford.
Jones tells us this low data approach was initially designed for the South African market because data is so expensive.
“What we found is that [emergency services] were sending out links, but the callers didn’t want to open the link, because they didn’t want to get charged with data, or run out of data,” says Jones. “And so we developed a website, which simply displays the three-word address of where you are right at that moment. You can do that in multiple languages, and it’s seven kilobytes [to load]. This page will even read the three-word address out for you, so you don’t need to speak the language.”
The app also works offline, should you have it downloaded beforehand. If you’re making a call to emergency services, you have likely have enough reception to load a 7kb packet. Third-party offline mapping apps like Avenza Maps are also adding What3words support.
Then there is the advent of Advanced Mobile Location, or AML, which allows emergency services to glean your location information automatically on a 911 call using the GPS chip built into your phone. To date, AML is the most advanced tool emergency services have, providing more accurate location information than things like Push Mobile Location, which attempts to triangulate location using cell towers. The trouble is, AML is still being rolled out and has hit a few legislative road bumps around the world; it also may not work depending on your cell carrier or if the firmware on your phone is out of date.
Even with services like AML, which isn’t operational in Australia, Bradford sees the utility in a service like What3words, especially in a case like the hikers on Flinders Island, where they walked to a second location to find service.
All of this does raise the question, do we need another mapping system? There is nothing wrong with using GPS or AML or something else like Google’s Open Location code, but if you’re in trouble is it so bad to give emergency services every tool available to help them locate you?
“We do use GPS, we do use addressing, but sometimes you’re in a place that doesn’t have a great address. You’d be surprised how many people can’t actually navigate their phone to tell you their GPS coordinates because they don’t know where to look,” says Bradford. “Quite honestly, it’s not something we are going to use every day, but it’s just another tool we have at our disposal. If we can save some time trying to locate you, that’s a good thing.”