If you needed to tell someone exactly where you are right now, how would you do it? For centuries, explorers have used celestial navigation to chart their geographic coordinates using latitude and longitude. However, that requires a whole lot of patience and training in the use of a sextant, sun compass, or other analog equipment. These days, we can simply check a smartphone app or GPS device and read the latitude and longitude values on the screen. This is an effective standard, but it's not without some drawbacks.

An engraving of a sextant, circa 1768. (Via Wikipedia / Wellcome Images)

Telling someone your precise latitude and longitude isn't always a simple task. First, there's the question of using degrees, minutes, and seconds (e.g. 12°26'17″N, 27°15'4″E) or decimal coordinates (e.g. 12.43805, 27.25111). Either way, you're going to be reading off long strings of numbers. For decimal coordinates, every whole degree is equal to roughly 69 miles (111 kilometers), so you'll need to list out five decimal places to achieve a location that most people would call exact — within a 3-foot/1 meter square. That means you have to communicate up to 16 digits total. It's all too easy to mess up one digit and end up giving the wrong location — especially if you're transmitting it over a weak radio or cell signal, or jotting down coordinates in an emergency.

A UK-based company known as What3Words has developed a system that makes conveying geographic location easier for the average person. We're not computers, so we understand (and remember) words a whole lot better than numbers, and this is the basis for What3Words. It breaks the globe into 57 trillion 10-foot (3-meter) squares, and designates each square with a unique combination of three words. So, rather than saying you're at 12.43805, 27.25111 you might say you're at ostrich.adapt.subversives.

To determine your What3Words location, you can install the company's free app on your smartphone and tap the 10×10 square you need to locate. A three-word string will be displayed. You can also search for someone else's three-word string to pull up their location, and pull up directions to that location using your app of choice. This system has been used by search and rescue personnel, travel services, Mercedes navigation systems, and even by the Mongolian postal service to designate addresses.

Of course, like latitude and longitude, this three-word system has some drawbacks:

  • It's based on a mobile app, so you need a device with an internet connection to use it. There's no analog way to calculate your W3W location.
  • Slight variations to words can lead to errors — dropping the “s” from the end of ostrich.adapt.subversives changes the location from central Africa to a point off the coast of India. It'd be hard to miss an error that substantial, but the use of plural and similar-sounding words is an unfortunate necessity of this system.
  • It's not an open-source standard, so you can't use a 3-word location with other apps like Google Maps unless you convert it using the W3W app.

This blog article goes into more detail on the potential issues. Some are legitimate, while others strike us as a little far-fetched (such as the potential for auto-generated word combinations that might be interpreted as offensive).

Regardless, What3Words is a convenient tool in your navigation toolbox, and one that makes communicating precise locations easy. Next time you need to tell someone which door to use on a building, you won't have to say “the second one on the northwest side” or “the one nearest to the big tree” or some other vague instruction. You can tell them to look for fabulous.walrus.sunglasses — OK, that's not a real location, but you get the idea.

Thanks to RECOIL contributor Tamara Keel for the tip about this app.

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