Why bother with What Three Words?

By @edent

I'll be wording this post carefully as What 3 Words (W3W) have a tenacious PR team and, probably, have a lot more lawyers than I do.

W3W is a closed product. It is a for-profit company masquerading as an open standard. And that annoys me.

A brief primer.

  • The world is a sphere.
  • We can reference any point on the surface of Earth using two co-ordinates, Longitude and Latitude.
  • Long/Lat are numbers. They can be as precise or as vague as needed.
  • Humans can't remember long strings of numbers, and reading them out is difficult.

W3W aims to solve this. It splits the world into a grid, and gives every square a unique three-word phrase.

So the location 51.50799,-0.12803 becomes ///mile.crazy.shade

Brilliant, right?

No.

Here's all the problems I have with W3W.

It isn't open

The algorithm used to generate the words is proprietary. You are not allowed to see it. You cannot find out your location without asking W3W for permission.

If you want permission, you have to agree to some pretty long terms and conditions. And understand their privacy policy. Oh, and an API agreement. And then make sure you don't infringe their patents.

You cannot store locations. You have to let them analyse the locations you look up. Want to use more than 10,000 addresses? Contact them for prices!

It is the antithesis of open.

Cost

W3W refuses to publish their prices. You have to contact their sales team if you want to know what it will cost your organisation.

Open standards are free to use.

Earthquakes

When an earthquake struck Japan, street addresses didn't change but that their physical location did.

That is, a street address is still 42 Acacia Avenue - but the Longitude and Latitude has changed.

Perhaps you think this is an edge case? It isn't. Australia is drifting so fast that GPS can't keep up.

How does W3W deal with this? Their grid is static, so any tectonic activity means your W3W changes.

Internationalisation

Numbers are fairly universal. Lots of countries use 0-9. English words are not universal. How does W3W deal with this?

Is "cat.dog.goose" straight translated into French? No! Each language has its own word list.

There is no way to translate between languages. You have to beg W3W for permission for access to their API. They do not publish their word lists or the mappings between them.

So, if I want to tell a French speaker where ///mile.crazy.shade is, I have to use ///embouchure.adjuger.saladier

Loosely translated back as ///mouth.award.bowl an entirely different location!

You're not allowed to know what word lists W3W use. They take a paternalistic attitude to creating their lists - they know best. You cannot propose changes.

Anecdotally, their non-English word lists are confusing even for native speakers.

Cultural Respect

Numbers are (mostly) culturally neutral. Words are not. Is "mile.crazy.shade" a respectful name for a war memorial? How about ///tribes.hurt.stumpy for a temple?

How do you feel about ///weepy.lulls.emerge and ///grouchy.hormone.elevating both being at Auschwitz? Or ///klartext.bestückt.vermuten - "cleartext stocked suspect"?

This is a classic computer science problem. Every sufficiently long word list can eventually be recombined into a potentially offensive phrase.

Open Washing

W3W know that the majority of technical people are not fooled by their attempts to lock down addressing.

They include this paragraph to attempt to prove their openness:

If we, what3words ltd, are ever unable to maintain the what3words technology or make arrangements for it to be maintained by a third-party (with that third-party being willing to make this same commitment), then we will release our source code into the public domain. We will do this in such a way and with suitable licences and documentation to ensure that any and all users of what3words, whether they are individuals, businesses, charitable organisations, aid agencies, governments or anyone else can continue to rely on the what3words system.

I don't know how they propose to bind a successor organisation. They don't say what licences they will use. If they go bust, there's no guarantee they'll be legally able to release this code, nor may they have the time to do so.

There's nothing stopping W3W from releasing their algorithms now, subjecting them to scrutiny by the standards community. They could build up a community of experts to help improve the system, they could work with existing mapping efforts, they could help build a useful and open standard.

But they don't. They jealously guard their secrets and actively promote their proprietary product in the hope it will become widely accepted and then they can engage in rent-seeking behaviour.

This is not a new argument

My mate Leigh wrote about this three years ago. Lots of people have criticised W3W.

But W3W have a great PR team - pushing press releases which are then reported as uncritical news.

The most recent press release contains a ludicrous example:

  • Person dials the emergency services
  • Person doesn't know their location
  • Emergency services sends the person a link
  • Person clicks on link, opens web page
  • Web page geolocates user and displays their W3W location
  • Person reads out their W3W phrase to the emergency services

Here's the thing... If the person's phone has a data connection - the web page can just send the geolocation directly back to the emergency services! No need to get a human to read it out, then another human to listen and type it in to a different system.

There is literally no need for W3W in this scenario. If you have a data connection, you can send your precise location without an intermediary.

What Next?

W3W succeeds because it has a superficially simple solution to a complex problems. It is a brilliant lesson in how marketing and PR can help a technologically inferior project look like it is a global open solution.

I'm not joking. Their branding firm says:

Edelman helped what3words frame their story to be compelling by tapping into human emotion. We also created a story for CEO Chris Sheldrick about how having an address can drive social transformation and business efficiency, securing profiling and speaker opportunities. Through paid social campaigns we re-targeted these stories, getting through to the decision makers that mattered most.

We articulated their purpose narrative and refined their strategy to engage investors and excite the media.

It takes too much time to refute all their claims - but we must. Whenever you see people mentioning What3Words, politely remind them that it is not an open standard and should be avoided.