Mapping the world, three words at a time

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Here's the problem: hundreds of millions, and more likely several billion, of the world's people live in a world in which few or none of the places that are important in their lives—where they live, where they work, where they catch the bus, where their kids go to school, where they go for a drink or to watch the movies—has an "address," a unique and commonly understood designator indicating their actual physical location. Think of just the inhabitants of the slums and favelas in and around the great world mega-cities—Sao Paolo, Brazil; Mexico City; Shanghai; Istanbul; Mumbai; Jakarta, Indonesia … and multiply that many times over.

And think of what it would be like to live in a world without addresses and how difficult (or impossible) it would be to get utility service or request an ambulance or report a crime or obtain public services or get a product delivered or start a business or open a school or call a meeting of your neighbors or find the voting booth you're supposed to go to … without the ability to refer to precisely where any of that is supposed to happen.

Of course, it's true that any point on the Earth's surface can be identified uniquely by its latitude and longitude—at least if you include enough significant digits to make the reference sufficiently precise—and there are lots of places on the Internet where you can convert latitude and longitude parameters into specific locations (and vice versa) (such as the GPS Coordinate Tracker). Monticello, for instance, is at 38.0086043 North latitude and 78.45319940000002 West longitude; and if I ask you to meet me at 34.1016357 North and 118.3266744 West, we'll end up right at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

But long strings of digits are very difficult to remember and to use when communicating with others. It is as difficult to imagine a usable universal location scheme that requires people to talk to one another in latitude and longitude references as it is to imagine the Internet becoming the Internet without the domain name system, which eliminates the need to refer to the unique number—the hexadecimal "IP Address" (e.g., for—assigned to every website or other Internet location.

A London start-up, What3Words, has come up with what looks, to me, like it could be a truly transformative resolution to the problem. [An excellent essay by Frederic Filloux at MondayNote has more details, as does the what3words website.] What3words has managed to divide the Earth into squares three meters on a side and given a unique three-word name to each, using only common English words. So the Capitol Rotunda is in "shall.spider.bake"; the Empire State building in "heaves.wipes.clay"; the Camp Nou, home of the world's greatest soccer team, FC Barcelona, is at "comb.bombard.cooks"; the corner of Hollywood and Vine at "gently.fears.lives," etc. [You can play with their interactive map, which is surprisingly engaging, at the what3words website here.]

There are a couple of interesting things about this scheme. First of all, the entire "dictionary"—the complete matrix of locational information tying three-word phrases to places on a map—takes up between five and 10 mB; that means that the whole thing can easily fit on a smartphone. And the developers have created versions of the matrix in nine different languages, so that, e.g., the 3×3 square identified as is the same square at the one named arrotos.impondo.fecho in the Portuguese version, schreien.laute.hassen in German, etc., allowing people to use whichever of the languages they're most comfortable with.

I've been wrong before, but I've also been right before—and this does seem like something of a game-changer to me. It all depends on standardization, of course—my telling you to come to the picnic tomorrow at calm.update.output only works if you and I share the dictionary (presumably, on our phones). But that's true for Internet addresses and names, too … and look how that worked out.

Worth keeping an eye on, I think.

[Thanks to on Slashdot for the pointer]