Using Words as a Coordinate System

This afternoon, the office was somewhat abuzz with coworkers in my area trying out what3words, a geocoding system developed back in 2013 that uses words instead of numbers to define coordinates for map locations. I had heard about the system in the past but hadn’t tried it out in a while. It was fun to play around and find the approximate location of our “specific” desks in the office building, using the satellite imagery as a very inaccurate guide.

Locations In Just Three Words

For those who are unaware, what3words divides all of the world into 3 meter squares and assigns a set of three words to that specific “spot” on the ground. For example, a picnic table at a nearby park that I like to visit has an “address” of ///repels.schoolyard.garden. I like how they’ve branded the app with the three slashes, yet as cool as it looks, it doesn’t really fit into the normalized URI specification we already know and use today. However, it does appear that they’re using a URL scheme to for mobile device integration. I guess we’ll see how far this goes – it seems to have taken off especially in undeveloped countries that aren’t well-addressed.

ExampleWhat3Words
A screensnap from a YouTube video showing how the system (sort of) works…

In any case, I enjoyed a short break to poke around with the what3words API, and even started an idea of an Alfred Workflow that would allow you to quickly look up a location by name or paste a coordinate to get the three words. I even downloaded the what3words app, and might even remember it use it in some situation where I need to give my location (or a specific location) to someone. I’m interested to play around now and see if I can get it to work with the Workflow app somehow.

Novelty Map Locations

However, just like when I first discovered the system, it still feels a bit like a novelty approach to geocoding, even though I’m sure there are practical uses. I guess it’s easier to rattle of three pronounceable words than it is to remember a string of numbers and get the projection correct in the meantime. And, in those cases where you need to pinpoint a specific spot, it’s good to keep in mind that the coordinate is only three words away.