Doctor and activist

Three Words May Save a  Life

A new application of old technology may easily save lives.  Addresses as currently used are often not precise enough to find what you, or emergency services are looking for. 

The name of a shopping complex for example does not help you find someone and can result in long phone calls with descriptions of right, left, and ‘near the escalators’ leading to much confusion. 

Now, rather than using very long numbers of latitude and longitude, the whole world has been divided into blocks 3 metres square with 3 word names. 

These can be searched by databases and are used by the  triple zero (000) emergency numbers.

The App, what3words can be downloaded to a phone (5.6Mb) and will then tell your position to within the 3 square metre block that you are standing in, complete with a real time satellite picture.

This seems a significant advance in location identification for emergencies. My back door has a very nice name.

Here is the SMH article that put me up to it:


Hang on every word to deliver mail, save lives

Eryk Bagshaw 1 October 2023

North Asia correspondent

Ulaanbaatar: Chris Sheldrick was used to everyone getting lost.

On his farm in rural Hertfordshire in England in the 1990s, police struggled to find the right gate after a break-in.

‘‘I grew up in an environment where addresses didn’t take you to the right place,’’ he says. ‘‘In Australia, when I lived there for a while, I went to Alice Springs and stayed with a family where the husband was a Flying Doctor. They had to communicate the location of where someone needed an air ambulance very, very quickly.’’

Often, they would lose precious minutes as dispatchers battled to pin down where the patient was located in areas without addresses or clear landmarks. In his 20s when he started booking gigs in London, the band and the gear were regularly being dropped off at the wrong place.

‘‘I was running a music business, just getting musicians to events, and it was them getting lost which, I think, was the driver to push me to do this,’’ he says.

Frustrated by centuries-old postal systems and complicated GPS coordinates, Sheldrick and two friends – Cambridge University mathematician Mohan Ganesalingam and linguist Jack Waley-Cohen – developed a system that would carve up the world into three-metre squares.

Now it is being used to deliver mail to nomadic herders in Mongolia, direct taxis in the labyrinth streets of Japan and mark the locations of walkers around Sydney harbour.

Each three-metre square is defined by three words: A picnic spot on Cockatoo Island? ‘‘themes.films.grows’’. A stall inside Queen Victoria Market? ‘‘blunt. shine.aims’’. Wandered just off the Three Sisters walking track in the Blue Mountains? ‘‘pooches.throwing.churn’’.

‘‘Let’s say the Japanese version, we put the easiest Japanese words in Japan, and the more complicated Japanese words in the Brazilian rainforest, where there are not many Japanese speakers,’’ Sheldrick says.

The tool, What3words, has become hugely popular in densely populated cities like London, where deliveries can be sent to exact locations in crowded apartment and office blocks, and is growing in Tokyo, where a bedlam of streets and an unwieldy address system have long made navigation difficult.

But in sparsely populated countries like Mongolia where up to a third of the population is nomadic, it is transforming access to the global economy.

For deliveries in Mongolia, an address is no longer needed – just three words that correspond to three square metres.

In the Taiga snow forest, 26 hours north of Ulaanbaatar, reindeer herders Zorigt and Otgonbayar follow the movements of their herd every few weeks.

Their life is defined by finding the best shelter to get through brutal winters where temperatures can drop as low as -28 degrees. Now the couple supplement their incomes during summer with the most remote Airbnb in the world.

‘‘We love hosting people,’’ says Zorigt. ‘‘Tourists discover the area and learn about life here.’’

Each time herders move their ger, also known as a yurt, they update the listing with the three words for their location. ‘‘I can definitely say we did not have that [one on the cards],’’ says Sheldrick. ‘‘I mean, I know Australia is vast . . .but this was vast.’’

Increasingly, emergency services in Australia are asking people in distress to use three words to describe their location. At Wanda Beach near Cronulla, surfers will walk past a sign that tells them to quote ‘‘placed.shiny. necks’’ in an emergency.

When Matty Askew’s mum Pamela collapsed with chest pains in Huskisson on the NSW South Coast in April, the 51-year-old struggled to define where they were in the middle of a thousand Anzac Day revellers.

‘‘I tried describing where we were, but the operator who picked up the phone was based in Sydney, over 200 kilometres away, so she had no local knowledge and couldn’t pinpoint our exact location,’’ he says.

The three words: driveways.stably. outdoors directed paramedics to where she was battling a heart infection.

‘‘That stuff is very powerful,’’ says Shedrick, who does not charge emergency services to use the system. ‘‘Because I don’t think your mind immediately goes to ‘oh, my God every day you’re going to see those kinds of real-life stories coming in’. But it is great to see that our tech is being used in that way.’’

Sheldrick’s optimism masks the reality that What3words faces threats to its business model from the world’s largest tech companies and after a decade of operation, is still leaking cash.

In May, it reduced its losses from £43.3 million ($83 million) in 2021 to £31.5 million ($60 million) in 2022, after a $10 million crowdfunding campaign.

It generates money by charging businesses to integrate the service into their websites. The three words are turned into GPS code through the system, which is still needed by most location services around the world.

More than 20 companies have tried to create alphanumeric codes for deliveries, including Google, but few have caught on, mainly because they are easily forgettable as addresses. In an emergency, sharing a map location on a smartphone can be both timeconsuming and clunky. So can What3words make real money? What3words’ long-term success will hinge on whether it can achieve one goal: to change the way people think.

‘‘We have to get into the minds of the population,’’ Sheldrick says. ‘‘We have to change behaviour from what they did yesterday to using three words.’’

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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